Bethel students first in country to ride ‘cleanest’ buses on the market

Starting this spring, Bethel students might notice their rides to school are a bit quieter.

They’ll also be healthier.

Thanks to a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, new buses are arriving that have the cleanest emissions on the market.

Bethel School District will be the first in the country to use them.

“We’re excited to be the first and take advantage of the opportunity that we have to get them,” said Joel Stutheit, assistant director of Bethel’s transportation department.

Out of the district’s 216 buses, 32 run on propane, about 75 run on gasoline and the rest are diesel-fueled. The buses that run on propane can be identified by the green birds printed on the side of them.

The nine new Blue Bird Vision Propane buses will replace diesel buses and produce about half the emissions of the propane buses the district already has, Stutheit said.

“It’s cleaner coming out of the tailpipe, which means it’s cleaner for us,” Stutheit said. “We’re not breathing all that stuff that comes out.”

For the new buses, that means the lowest nitrogen oxide level possible. Nitrogen oxide, or NOx, is regulated under federal air quality standards and is known to be harmful to human health and the environment.

“Exposure to (nitrogen oxide) exhaust can trigger health problems, such as asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory issues,” said Adrianna Yameen, spokeswoman for ROUSH CleanTech, a company that manufactures alternative fuel technology for vehicles.

Bethel School District serves about 20,000 students covering 202 square miles of Pierce County, larger than the service areas of City of Seattle and the City of Tacoma combined.

Each year, Bethel buses drive 2.5 million miles, or about 14,000 miles a day.

“Our old buses that we’re getting rid of, if you walk in them you can see where there’s like a dirt staining, and that’s probably because of the diesel,” Stutheit said.

The new buses are expected to be on the road by the end of the school year and will be used across the district.

“We have buses that go out to Roy. We have buses that go out to Kapowsin, and some stay right here in the Spanaway area,” Stutheit said.

Stutheit had to convince his bus drivers that propane buses were safe when the district first started using them five years ago.

“Some people think you have a big old propane tank underneath and they are unsafe, but the tanks themselves are so heavily built that they can withstand a severe crash. But also there’s a steel frame built around it to to protect that bus,” Stutheit explained.

Now, he says, drivers routinely ask for propane buses and that they’re excited for the new ones that are coming.

Compared to diesel, propane auto-gas engines operate 50 percent more quietly, Yameen said. That helps stave off driver fatigue and makes it so students don’t have to shout over engine noise.

“The drivers do recognize the kids are quieter,” Stutheit said.

Propane buses also are cheaper than diesel, saving the district thousands in fuel and maintenance costs annually.

To add to the list, propane isn’t as smelly as diesel, making for a more enjoyable ride overall.

The EPA grant paid for 35 percent of each of the nine buses. Each bus costs about $125,000.

Bethel is looking to adopt more propane buses in the future, but diesel won’t go away completely — some bus styles don’t use propane.

For the styles that do, the district is transitioning toward them for safety and cost savings. They aren’t the only ones doing so.

“I know there’s a growing interest,” said Stutheit, who has spoken about propane buses at the Washington Association for Pupil Transportation convention. “I always get a call from other districts inquiring about them.”

About 1 million kids across the country ride to and from school in propane school buses each day, according to ROUSH CleanTech. More than 13,000 propane school buses have been deployed across the United States and Canada in more than 800 school districts.