The EPA offered strong evidence recently of its support for the rhetoric offered by environmental advocates on the tenuous link between air quality and school bus safety. The agency's stance is particularly significant because although the EPA is not only the federal agency that regulates diesel emissions under the Clean Air Act, it is often viewed as a bellwether of the current political climate.
To say that the industry should be extremely disappointed with the way the Bush Administration handled the EPA launch of its especially aggressive effort to clean up school bus emissions is an understatement. We had been under the impression that the Bush Administration's policy was to work in partnership with the industry to ensure that decisions affecting it have the benefit of input from as many diverse viewpoints as possible. Apparently that's nothing more than political rhetoric. The school bus industry has considerable experience with the diesel emissions issue and represents a constituency that is directly affected by the EPA's new policy. Yet we weren't invited to participate in the policy-making process until very late in the game. Nevertheless, we have made a strong effort to share with the EPA our concerns about the initiative.
Misleading the public
First and foremost, we have expressed grave concern that the way the EPA campaign (tentatively called "Clean School Bus USA") is presented to the public could actually endanger children and do significant damage to the pupil transportation industry. It's well known that school buses are the safest mode of ground transportation in America. In addition, a recent study by the Transportation Research Board concluded that more than 800 school-aged children die each year because they walk, bicycle or ride to school in a passenger car with a parent or friend — a stark contrast to the six school bus passenger fatalities per year. If this initiative frightens parents or policy-makers into thinking that riding in a school bus is dangerous to their child's health — and therefore results in fewer children using school bus transportation — more children will die.
At a time when states are strapped financially, we question the wisdom and timing of a national push to replace existing school buses based solely on interest group "studies." The fiscal reality is that states are struggling to fund existing obligations for essential services, including pupil transportation. Adding political pressure for under-funded or perhaps even unfunded new initiatives will only exacerbate the problem. It's also unlikely that private businesses, many struggling financially, would voluntarily "adopt" and provide funds for the retrofit, repower or purchase of new school buses in meaningful numbers.
Progress already underway
The school transportation industry, particularly NAPT, is not opposed to the evolutionary replacement of existing diesel engines with newer, cleaner-burning models. In fact, our industry voluntarily began such initiatives several years ago. Many states and local school districts are already moving in that direction as the technology becomes available and consistent with state resources.
Millions of Americans have been served by diesel-powered school buses without any known adverse health effects. To our knowledge, neither the EPA nor any of the environmental or air quality advocates can find even one person who has cancer, asthma, emphysema or any other respiratory affliction that can be directly linked to riding a school bus.
NAPT intends to remain steadfast in our resolve to tell the American public "the rest of the story" if EPA continues to press this initiative at the risk of overall student safety. We will also remain optimistic that EPA and NAPT could ultimately work together on this initiative. For now, however, we urge everyone in the industry to remain vigilant — because with friends like these, who needs enemies?
Donald Paull of Capital Bus Sales & Service of Texas, is president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.