Fred Matlack, manager of fleet maintenance at Missouri's Parkway School District, does a final engine inspection on one of the district's new compressed natural gas buses before assigning it to a driver.
When Will Rosa’s school district applied for a federal highway grant to buy compressed natural gas (CNG) school buses, he says that they initially got “some strange looks.”
The East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which administers federal highway grants in the St. Louis region, “had never seen someone like a school district there applying for money. It’s mostly for highways,” says Rosa, the director of transportation for Parkway School District, which is based in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Mo.
But the district had a compelling purpose for the funds: to improve air quality at schools and throughout the community, and to reduce students’ exposure to pollutants. The district noted in its grant application that the number of its students who suffer from asthma and allergies has “skyrocketed” over the past 10 years.
Rosa says that although he and his team “weren’t really confident” after the first meeting with East-West Gateway Council of Governments officials, “We won the award. … They liked that we were doing the right thing for kids.”
The award was sizable: $1.5 million, to be used for buying CNG school buses and building a CNG fueling station. The project would make Parkway one of just two districts in the state to use CNG buses, and the district’s new fueling station would be one of only a few CNG facilities in the region.
Lower fuel costs
Parkway acquired 30 CNG school buses, which were delivered this fall and winter. The grant covered 80% of the additional cost of each CNG bus compared to the cost of comparable diesel buses.
The new units, easily identified by their bright green rub rails (which Rosa notes is helpful to first responders), are 72-passenger Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner HDX CNG buses, purchased through Midwest Bus Sales. They make up 20% of Parkway’s total school bus fleet of 150, the rest of which are diesel.
Rosa says that Parkway has long been a “green-friendly” district in other ways — from running a recycling center (which is now outsourced) to installing solar panels on facility roofs — so shifting to alternative fuels is a natural extension of that mindset.
As for the reasoning on choosing CNG specifically, Rosa cites multiple factors, including lower emissions, reducing dependence on foreign oil and fuel cost savings.
“The cost of crude oil is going to increase,” he says. “Natural gas is domestically produced and available.”
With the lower price of natural gas compared to diesel, Parkway estimates that it will save around $100,000 in fuel costs in the next school year with the 30 CNG buses.
Another benefit that Parkway quickly noticed with the CNG buses is their quieter operation. That has a positive impact both for the community outside the bus and for the students and driver inside the bus.
“Some of the neighbors and parents have commented about the quietness of the buses on our Facebook page,” Rosa says. On board, “The kids are quieter — they’re not talking as loudly.”
Fred Matlack, Parkway’s manager of fleet maintenance, says that he has gotten good feedback from the drivers who have taken the wheel of the new CNG buses. One of those drivers is his wife.
“She loves it,” Matlack says, adding that the quieter onboard environment is a particularly popular feature. “She says, ‘Half the time I have to look in the mirror to make sure the kids are still awake.’”