Over the past three years, Blue Springs (Mo.) School District has worked hard to fine-tune and integrate new advances into its fleet operation.
The district started with technological advances made on and around the bus. Then in 2016, Blue Springs added alternative-fuel buses to its fleet and built a new fueling station to accommodate them. Old equipment was even used toward the creation of a mobile tech center for the community.
With a total of 148 school buses, the district now boasts 25 new compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles and has plans to expand that number annually.
According to Blue Springs School District’s lead mechanic, Jason Cain, the improvements were inspired by the desire to “go green” and by the dramatically fluctuating prices of other fuels.
New alt-fueling station
In August, Blue Springs School District launched its new CNG station, which was in the research and development phase for three years and took four months to build. It features 225-horsepower pumps that will eventually feed 120 CNG buses.
Blue Springs’ current 25 CNG buses include 19 Thomas C2 CNG models and six Collins Type A CNG models. The district plans to acquire new alt-fuel vehicles each year over the course of three years until the goal of 120 is reached.
Transportation Director Steve Brown says that Blue Springs has already seen reductions in operating costs with its CNG buses, and “we anticipate this will grow to a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars every year once all the buses are up and running.”
The new fueling station will eventually allow the district to cut back on shop personnel or restructure the department more efficiently. Since drivers can park CNG buses and plug them directly into the fueling station, there is not as much of a need for a full-time fueler.
“It’s like we’re gaining someone in the shop internally,” Cain says. “Our fueler is now free to do other things: oil changes, tires, more maintenance, and PM [preventive maintenance] on our vehicles.”
This fueling model also aids in preserving the lifespan of the bus. Because buses are not being transported to and from the fuel pump, there is a reduction in bumps and scrapes, idle time, work on the motor, and general wear and tear.
The Blue Springs shop maintains a total of 220 district vehicles. Cain, who is going on his 20th year with the district, started out as a technician and now runs the maintenance operation, including a staff of seven technicians, one fueler, and one mechanic assistant.
“We anticipate this will grow to a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars every year once all the [CNG] buses are up and running.”
-Steve Brown, transportation director, Blue Springs School District
So far, with the new buses and station, cost reductions have been steady.
“Natural gases are stable, delivered right to the facility, and cost less per gallon. They don’t fluctuate like propane,” Cain says. “Propane can be $1.50 per gallon in the summer and go up to $5 in the winter.”
Also, the rough average for CNG is about nine to 12 miles per gallon, while the district’s diesel buses get about three to five. Since its CNG buses have been on the road, Blue Springs School District has compiled the mileage with natural gas on a separate meter and gave it an average of 11 cents per gallon. (This figure includes the applied government rebate for natural gas usage.)
The district’s new CNG buses themselves have a range of improvements, such as an enhanced driver’s area, improved safety features, bigger, tinted windows, good acceleration, rapid temperature control, and cleaner emissions.
The majority of the district’s trip buses are also equipped with Wi-Fi.
“Going between school and an activity, kids can get some work done so they’re not staying up late doing homework,” Cain says.
Acording to Cain, what the district and its drivers like most about CNG buses is the quieter engine.
“The motor is smoother, and there’s not a lot of vibration,” Cain says. “Kids aren’t trying to over-talk the motor, so it allows the drivers to hear them better and this creates a safer environment on board the bus.”
Cracking down with cameras
One of the biggest changes on board all of Blue Springs’ buses over the past three years has been the integration of cameras. The district uses a four-camera system manufactured by Seon. It features three interior cameras that monitor everything inside the vehicle from the front to the back, as well as the driver’s view.
The fourth camera, on the exterior of the bus, is an HD camera under the stop arm. The school district is alerted if a vehicle on the road passes the bus while the stop arm is extended.
“We have cracked down on people running stop [arms],” Cain says. “If someone passes the stop [arm], we get a photo of their license plate in HD. We can freeze-frame it and give it to the police department. The officer either issues a warning or a ticket if it isn’t a first offense.”
The district is in talks with Seon about its desire for additional cameras to monitor more of the school bus’ exterior. “A lot happens outside — more than you’d think,” Cain says. “We’re looking for cameras that could do more around the bus, like cover kids walking around the bus or someone driving alongside the bus.”
Also, it is not uncommon for buses to be involved in situations or accidents in which their cameras happen to record significant evidence.
“We’ve actually had the footage to give to the police department a fair number of times,” Cain says. “Our footage has assisted the case and has recounted a decent amount.”
Bus becomes computer lab
The district also uses its dedication to technology to give back to the community at large. Four years ago, Blue Springs collaborated with a local organization called Women Endowing Education (W.E.E.) to design what’s called the W.E.E. Bus. The W.E.E. Bus is an old school bus equipped with computers that is driven around to provide internet access to those in need.
Blue Springs School District retrofitted one of its Blue Bird school buses, converting it into a mobile computer lab with 27 computers and Wi-Fi access. It has two generators and can function alone without needing to be plugged into a power source once it’s stationary. The bus has heaters, air-conditioning units, and lighting. It’s equipped with a wheelchair lift as well.
Several individuals and businesses made donations toward the project. Sprint funds the wireless internet, Dell donated the computers, a local cabinet shop donated the labor, and the school district purchased the wood. All computers are equipped with headphones that were donated as well.
According to Cain, the bus runs four or five days out of the week and sometimes on weekends.
“It never stops rolling,” he says. “The district has set rules for it. We don’t rent it out; it’s 100% funded by the school district and W.E.E. It’s used for public and educational events — applications that benefit the community.”
The W.E.E. bus has made appearances at local libraries, Boy Scout events, and job-search events. It has been used for GED training purposes and even research.
The bus is taken to neighborhoods where children who might not have internet access in their homes can experience internet-based games or just have some time on a computer outside of school.
“We wanted to make technology accessible for everybody,” Cain says.