Gas-Price Hikes Put Squeeze on Transportation Budgets

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John Currie, the transportation coordinator for the Uinta, Wyo., school district, is suffering from sticker shock.

A few months ago, he bought fuel for his 35-bus fleet and paid 67 cents a gallon. Last week, however, the price was bumping up against $1 a gallon, and Mr. Currie postponed his year-end plan to top off the district's 38,000-gallon fuel-storage tanks.

"I think I'll wait and ride it out until the price comes down," Mr. Currie said last week.

For the 3,600-student Uinta district and other districts across the country, summer break has arrived in the nick of time.

With oil in shorter supply, the average cost of gasoline nationwide has marched up 30 percent since January, according to federal officials.

Schools pony up less than the $1.33-a-gallon average at the pump because they're exempt from federal and many state gasoline taxes. But the price increases still have squeezed school transportation budgets.

The nation's more than 350,000 school buses log about 4 billion miles a year, according to the trade publication School Bus Fleet. And they guzzle fuel at the rate of as little as 3 miles a gallon.

Some officials, such as Mr. Currie, buy fuel periodically and haven't yet felt the sting of higher prices. And districts with fleets of diesel buses reported that their pump prices have increased only slightly.

Other school officials said they were lucky that the increases were gradual and fell at the end of the school year.

"Our saving grace was that it came later in the year," said Doug White, a transportation consultant to North Carolina's education department.

Feeling the Pinch

Still, particularly in many far-flung districts, officials felt the pinch early and juggled their budgets to get through the year.

In Roundup, Mont., several of the district's dozen school bus routes run 85 miles.

"We've just limped through and robbed Peter to pay Paul," said Linda Pearce, the business manager for the 700-student district.

Federal estimates suggest that fuel prices have peaked, but districts planning for the next school year are not sure how far to expect prices to fall.

Districts in Wyoming are "building budgets right now for next year, and they just have to guess," said Leeds Pickering, the state's school-transportation coordinator.

If prices don't fall, Mr. Currie of Uinta expects his $45,000 fuel budget will have to jump $15,000.

In California, the amount schools pay for gasoline has increased in recent months about 40 cents, to $1.12 a gallon. Schools have handled the increase so far, said Ron Kinney, the state's coordinator of school transportation. But if prices don't fall, "you'd be looking at something completely different."

The $836 million spent by the state and districts on transportation would increase by $20 million, he said.

Vol. 15, Issue 37

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