Tar Heel Tattler - March 2006

New school buses are heater beaters
By Arthur O. Murray

Federal regulators might like the 1,300 school buses bought by the state from High Point-based Thomas Built Buses two years ago. They produce fewer emissions. Students who have to ride in them, though, are more likely to gripe — once their teeth stop chattering.

The buses were the first bought by the state on the heels of a 2004 federal anti-pollution law requiring more efficient engines. Unfortunately for riders, the new engines don’t run as hot as older ones. That means coolant pumped to heaters at the front of the bus doesn’t get as hot as before, so the heaters don’t warm the whole bus. The state spent nearly $79 million on the new models, which replaced about 10% of the state’s fleet.

Jay Temple, transportation director for Davidson County Schools, says the complaints started shortly after the first of 22 new buses were delivered for the 2004-05 school year. Ditto for 11 buses in coastal Pasquotank County, says Jerel Winslow, its transportation director, and buses in other counties.

Thomas Built, which has produced about 95% of the state’s fleet, says the buses were built to state specifications. True, says Derek Graham, DPI’s section chief of transportation services. The state ordered what it always had: a model with a heater in the front. No one warned him that the new engines would weaken the heaters.

The state has learned its lesson. It bought about 500 school buses for the 2005-06 school year and specified front and rear heaters. Another manufacturer, Warrenville, Ill.-based Navistar International won the contract with a $31.4 million bid. So far, so good.

As for the cold buses, the state is testing new rear heaters installed by Thomas Built at cost - less than $300 apiece. Winslow and Temple say they have no money for the upfits and wonder who will pay. "We haven’t gotten that far yet," Graham says.

Regardless, Temple doesn’t want another year of shivering bus riders. "To put a kid on a bus where they may have to have a blanket to keep warm is not good business. The adults make the mistake, but the people who suffer are the kids."