The challenge of running a school transportation program has many facets, including the unpredictability of people, machines, weather — and fuel prices.
The soaring cost of fuel has become a critical issue among school bus operators. They’re not alone, of course. Public transit systems, trucking firms, limousine operators, taxi fleets, airlines — nearly any concern that relies on moving people or goods — has been struck hard by the high cost of fuel.
In this year’s annual School District Survey, rising fuel prices were cited as a top concern. Almost two of five respondents (39.4 percent) said it was their greatest challenge, compared to 6.1 percent in last year’s survey. That’s a more than 600 percent increase, certainly a testament to the staggering increase in fuel prices over the past year.
How to minimize the pain
So what needs to be done to keep costs down?
The obvious way to minimize costs is to make sure that your preventive maintenance program is keeping your vehicles in top operating condition to maximize fuel economy. As part of that program, tires should be checked often to ensure that they’re properly inflated.
Also, reducing the amount of time your buses are unnecessarily idling is wise. That’s an obvious suggestion, but one that’s often ignored by your drivers. You need to make sure that they are practicing what you preach.
These measures will provide only incremental savings, but those pennies saved become dollars soon enough, especially if you’re multiplying your savings over a large number of buses. Over a period of years, the savings are significant.
Another way to save is to remove the fuel-guzzling units from your fleet and replace them with new buses. Today’s buses have highly efficient, computer-controlled engines that keep fuel consumption to a minimum. If you need to make an argument for new buses to your school board or purchasing officer, high fuel prices can be your ammunition.
You can also argue that new buses will help with driver recruitment and retention, which was tabbed as their greatest challenge by 14.7 percent of the respondents to the survey. New buses are quieter and more ergonomically pleasing than their elderly counterparts. Recruiting and training new drivers is a costly endeavor. New buses could help alleviate turnover, which is more ammunition.
Don’t suffer in silence
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers to the fuel price problem. And you probably don’t either. But I’m confident that there are untapped solutions out there in the wider pupil transportation community.
If you’re not communicating with your colleagues at other districts or contractor companies on how to deal with fuel prices — or any other dilemmas — you should start right away. The vast sum of knowledge that resides in this industry is immense.
If you’re reading my column at the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) conference in Austin, Texas, you’re in a perfect position to improve your knowledge base. Surrounded by hundreds of peers, you have a great opportunity to compare notes and take away from Austin some invaluable advice on cutting fuel costs.
If you didn’t attend the NAPT meeting, plan to attend next year. It’s worth the investment.