Jewel Armour, executive director of operations for the Hall County school system, said with diesel fuel hovering just below the $5 mark, the county must explore alternative fuel sources for powering its 205 buses. The fleet of county school buses is expected to guzzle $2.4 million of diesel gas this school year.
"We're still in the research stage now," Armour said. "Those buses will not get the fuel mileage we're getting now, probably. ... The advantages are the engines last longer and they burn clean, and there's less pollution to the air. And we're being told the cost of liquid propane is less than diesel fuel. ... So we think we could save a lot of money."
Armour said he estimates nearly 22,000 of Hall County schools' roughly 25,000 students regularly rode the bus to and from school last year. But he said toward the end of the 2007-08 school year, ridership increased slightly, and thinks the number of daily bus riders could continue to increase if gas prices remain high.
"I'm expecting there to be more ridership this school year," he said. "I expect students who have driven to school, with gas prices, will drive less. I expect (the number of) elementary students who have parents that take them to school and pick them up to change, too, if they drive some distance to get their child to school."
Armour said the county school board has allocated $2.4 million to fund school bus fuel costs - that's $700,000 more than the board designated for bus fuel last year, when fuel averaged $2.60 per gallon rather than in excess of $4 per gallon.
With liquid propane currently in good supply, Armour said the fuel mix is less expensive than diesel, as it is made up of 70 percent natural gas and only 30 percent petroleum. In addition, he said the school system could obtain a 50-cent-per-gallon rebate for the alternative fuel through the federal Clean Fuels USA program.
"At some point between now and the first of the year, we'll request bids for the 2009-2010 school year, and that's when we would likely purchase those (propane buses). We're probably going to try them out and see how it works."
Until the system purchases the alternative fuel buses, Armour said bus drivers will be navigating county roads with gas conservation in mind. He said drivers are encouraged to use a strict anti-idling policy. Also, county transportation directors are asking bus drivers to plan their stops and starts to avoid quick accelerations and sudden stops.
"These are little things that we can do," Armour said. "But we cover over two and a half million miles per year, and in those miles, little things can add up."
The Gainesville school system is also adopting similar policies for its bus drivers who sit behind the wheels of the 40 buses that cart about 3,000 kids - half of the city's school system - to and from school each day.
Jerry Castleberry, assistant transportation director for the Gainesville school system, said city school buses typically run about 1,600 miles each day during the school year. The transportation system requested $300,000 for fuel costs from the Gainesville board of education this year, which is $115,000 more than transportation officials requested last year.
Castleberry said like the county bus system, the city will encourage sports teams and classes taking field trips to consolidate the number of trips made on buses. Castleberry said girls' and boys' sports teams could start sharing bus trips together to sports events to cut down on transportation costs.
The city buses could also reduce the number of stops they make on before- and after-school routes, Castleberry said.
"We'll just make sure it's an appropriate space between bus stops," he said. "We won't be going block to block, definitely not. In some cases, kids may have to walk a little bit further from home to the bus stop. Of course, we'll keep safety in mind if we do that."