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Bus-Conversion Bill Takes Off, But May Stall Over Funding

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According to some Texas school officials, one bill now chugging its way through the legislature sounds almost too good to be true.

By phasing out school buses that run on gasoline and replacing them with ones powered by cleaner-burning compressed natural gas, the measure's backers say, the state would: help reduce air pollution, reinvigorate its troubled natural-gas industry, pump additional money into its Permanent School Fund, cut school districts' fuel and maintenance costs, and make transportation safer for students.

The state's school boards, however, are eyeing the proposal with concern.

Their primary worry, said Susan Hopkins of the Texas Association of School Boards, is that the bill would not provide districts with the funds needed to switch over their bus fleets from gasoline to natural gas.

In addition, she said, given the unstable nature of the oil and gas industry, there is no guarantee that natural gas will continue to be a cheaper fuel than gasoline.

"It's imposing a mandate without covering the cost," Ms. Hopkins2p4said. "It's a good clean-air bill and we're all for it. We just want the state to provide the funding."

The measure, which was passed by the Senate state-lands committee by a 10-to-1 vote last week and has drawn 50 co-sponsors in the House, is the brainchild of Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro.

Under the bill, beginning in September 1991, districts that operate more than 50 buses would be barred from buying, leasing, or contracting for vehicles that cannot run on natural gas or another alternative fuel.

In addition, districts would have to convert 30 percent of their existing buses from gasoline to natural gas by September 1994, and 50 percent by September 1996. If the Texas Air Control Board decides by the end of that year that the program has succeeded in reducing air pollution, 90 percent of all school buses would have to be converted by September 1998.

The measure assumes that districts would pay for new refueling facilities and the bus conversions by taking out loans from natural-gas suppliers. The new requirements could be waived if a district proved that it did not have access to a refueling station, or could not obtain adequate financing or a sufficient supply of new natural-gas-powered buses.

According to David Roberts, a spokesman for Mr. Mauro, the land commissioner initially came up with the idea as a way to help the state meet federal clean-air requirements. Twenty-one of the state's counties are currently violating air-quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and much of the problem stems from motor-vehicle emissions.

Mr. Roberts said the bill has a number of other factors weighing in its favor.

School lands represent more than half of the 21.2 million acres managed by Mr. Mauro's office, and much of the revenues those lands generate for the state Permanant School Fund come from leases on natural-gas wells. By encouraging consumption of the fuel, Mr. Roberts said, the state would boost the flagging industry and at the same time make more money available for state per-pupil aid.

Other benefits cited by Mr. Roberts include:

Safety. The National Transportation Safety Board's recent report on a church-bus crash in May 1988 that killed 27 found that the fatalities were caused by the fire that occurred after the bus's gasoline tank ruptured.

Mr. Roberts noted that natural gas is safer than gasoline because it is lighter than air and dissipates immediately upon release, and because the engine-ignition temperature of natural gas is 600 degrees higher than that of gasoline.

He also said tests conducted by the U.S. Transportation Department show that the tanks used to hold natural gas in a bus remain intact after being dynamited, shot with a rifle, or thrown in a bonfire.

Cost. Mr. Roberts said the bill could reduce districts' costs in the long run because compressed natural gas, a liquid, tends to be less expensive than gasoline. Currently, the difference is about 30 cents a gallon.

In addition, he said, because natural gas burns cleaner, buses would need fewer oil changes and tune-ups and their exhaust systems would need replacement less frequently, thus lowering maintenance costs.

In 1982, the Garland Independent School District in the Dallas area converted 65 of its 200 buses so they4could operate on either gasoline or natural gas. According to Howard Keeling, the district's vehicle-maintenance supervisor, the school system recouped its $24,100 investment within five years and continues to save money because of the relatively lower price of natural gas.

Ms. Hopkins of the state school boards' association said that although her group agrees that the bill has many positive aspects, it plans to oppose the measure if it reaches the House floor.

"If they would just have us replace our buses as they age, that would be acceptable," she said. "But the fact that we would have to convert our existing buses--and that they will not pay for that cost--is not."

Ms. Hopkins also noted there are no guarantees that natural-gas suppliers will make financing available, and that districts in any case would have to repay the loans and all interest on them.

"There's also talk that we would save money because of the difference in prices" between the two fuels, she added. "Someone would really have to document that for us to get on line."

Ms. Hopkins said the association plans to lobby lawmakers in hopes of "coming up with a bill that we can all live with."

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