Cabarrus School Buses Play Significant Role in Improving Air Quality

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 16, 2011

05/16/11 by Kathy Chaffin
When it comes to improving local air quality, the transportation director of the Cabarrus County Schools says the familiar yellow buses play a major role.
Timothy W. Thompson says the school system’s buses provided around 7.5 million student rides in 2010. That’s based on an average of 21,500 student rides, twice a day for 180 days a year. “If it were not for school buses,” he says, “all those 21,500 students would have to get a ride.”
That number varies, he says, but not more than a couple hundred over a two-month period. Last year, Cabarrus school buses traveled a total of 4,121,403 miles picking up and dropping off students.
Thompson says an average of 7,790 students either ride in or drive private vehicles to school. So far, he says rising gas prices have not reduced that number. “I think that may change if prices keep going up,” he says. Most of the school buses hold 60 passengers, though elementary buses may hold up to 66.
Thompson, who recently attended a public transportation workshop at the Center for the Environment facility on the Catawba College campus with other Cabarrus transit managers and government leaders, said he realized then how much school buses help to reduce harmful ozone emissions. “I sat there on my Smart Phone and did the math about the number of trips we do a year,” he says.  “Most people don’t think about those yellow buses as being a form of public transportation even though it is restricted to people who go to school.”
It was also at the workshop that Thompson heard that the Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury metro region – which includes Cabarrus County – was ranked 10th in the nation for the worst ozone levels. Though the actual ozone levels were down, the region maintained the ranking in the 2011 State of the Air Report released last month by the American Lung Association.
“I didn’t realize that Cabarrus’ air quality was in such bad shape until I went to that meeting,” he says. Cabarrus is not one of the counties monitored for air quality, but Rowan County remained 17th in the nation for the worst ozone levels of counties monitored.
Thompson was among the workshop participants who attended a follow-up meeting April 13 at CK Rider’s Transit Center in Concord. A big concern to school transportation directors is the discussions going on in the state legislature. Thompson says state budget woes have officials in Raleigh considering placing the responsibility for replacing buses on the local education agencies. The Cabarrus system has 229 buses in its fleet, and the replacement cost for one bus is about $80,000.
“It would be difficult for local counties to absorb that kind of cost,” he says. “We probably need 10 or more a year with the size fleet we have.”The rising cost of diesel fuel is already causing problems for the Cabarrus County Schools. “On July 7, we were paying $2.10 for diesel,” Thompson says. “Today’s price is $3.42.”
Though the state has given the school system supplemental allotments to help offset rising fuel costs, he says it won’t be enough to cover the difference. Thompson says the state is also considering turning the burden of insuring buses over to local school systems.
If people took time to realize the benefits of school buses and were more vocal in their support, Thompson says he doesn’t think state officials would be considering these changes. “School bus service