The Ascension Parish school district had planned to buy five new diesel school buses over the next year at a cost of $500,000 to replace buses beyond repair. But, thanks to an unusual funding source, they'll now be getting twice that number of new buses at that same price.
And the buses will be fueled by more environmentally friendly propane.
Ascension is among several school systems around the state, including East Baton Rouge and Lafayette, that are taking advantage of matching funds that are available to replace buses.
"The goal is to get older, polluting vehicles off the road," said Tyler Herrmann, co-coordinator with Louisiana Clean Fuels, a nonprofit organization that is helping school districts like Ascension's apply for matching funds to replace aging diesel buses.
The funds come from a lawsuit settlement of $19.8 million that German car manufacturer Volkswagen is to pay Louisiana over three years.
The company pleaded guilty in 2017 to installing software in its 2009-2016 vehicles that circumvented emissions standards of the federal Environmental Protection Agency — emitting up to 40 times more pollution than standards allow. The settlement for each state was determined based on the number of those particular Volkswagen vehicles registered there.
In Louisiana, the money was divided equally between the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation and Development.
Those first two agencies — DEQ and DNR — pooled their money to replace aging diesel school buses. The DOTD is going to replace about 60 percent of the agency's older diesel trucks with newer, cleaner-burning diesel trucks.
For the school bus replacement program, the participating school districts will be reimbursed 25 percent for replacing buses with cleaner-burning diesel buses and 50 percent for replacing buses with ones fueled by liquid propane.
The school districts are required to ensure that each old, diesel-bus they replace will never be back on the road again.
"I have to destroy the engine block," Chad Lynch, director of planning and construction for the Ascension Parish school district, said. The chassis frame of the bus must be completely cut in half, too, he said.
The Ascension Parish school district plans to get five additional propane buses to replace worn out diesel buses in the fiscal year that begins July 2020.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system began replacing its older diesel buses with propane-fueled ones after the flood of 2016 that destroyed 110 of its 600 buses, Suzanne Navo, the district's grant writer, said.
The replacement program, initiated by the district's transportation director, Gary Reese, who recently retired, has used a combination of money from grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust, Navo said.
A 25 percent matching EPA grant for 17 propane buses was awarded to the East Baton Rouge school district in 2017; a second EPA grant was awarded in July, with the number of new buses to be purchased not yet finalized, she said.
The East Baton Rouge school district will also receive 50 percent matching funds from the Volkswagen settlement for the purchase of 50 new propane buses over three years, Navo said.
"It's like free money; it's a huge help," she said. "We're trying to make a migration to a propane fleet."
Some of the new propane buses are already on the road in East Baton Rouge. Navo notes that the buses look like typical school buses, but are not only more environmentally friendly, they ride quieter, too, something that people have noticed.
Two rounds of Louisiana school district applications for the Volkswagen settlement funds have been completed. The third round, and potentially final one, depending on the funds requested, has a deadline of Oct. 1, Herrmann, with Louisiana Clean Fuels, said.
School districts can email DEQ for more information at email@example.com.
In addition to Ascension and East Baton Rouge, several other public school districts in Louisiana are taking part in the program, either for new, cleaner driving diesel buses or propane ones. They include: Beauregard, Bossier, Lafayette, Plaquemines, Rapides, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. John the Baptist, Tangipahoa, Union, Vernon and Winn.
Jennifer Gardener, chief administrative officer for the Lafayette Parish school system, said that the district has been able to replace 13 of its approximately 200 diesel buses with ones fueled by propane.
"We definitely took the opportunity that was provided to us," she said.