Federal

School Measures Hitch Ride on Transportation Bill

June 21, 2005 5 min read
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A federal highway bill may not be of obvious interest to the education community, but the behemoth measure nearing completion on Capitol Hill is certainly worth a glance, or two.

Tucked into the $300 billion transportation legislation, for example, is a plan to authorize almost $1 billion over five years to finance projects that would make walking and biking to school safer for children. Another provision would seek to prohibit school districts from using passenger vans to transport students. A third would vastly expand the budget for the federal Clean School Bus USA program.

Congress has had a tough time completing the long-overdue transportation bill. But the House and the Senate now appear on the cusp of finally sending it to President Bush’s desk.

“It’s a bill that the school transportation industry has been following very closely,” said Michael J. Martin, the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, in Albany, N.Y.

In naming his priorities, Mr. Martin first mentioned the plan to prevent districts from transporting students to school or school-related events in passenger vans.

“Kids are at a much greater risk riding in these vehicles,” he said. “School buses meet more federal motor-vehicle-safety standards than any other vehicle on the road.”

About half of all children currently ride a school bus to campus.

Clean School Buses

It’s been a long road, so to speak, for the highway legislation. The last reauthorization of the main federal surface-transportation law expired on Sept. 30, 2003. The law has had seven temporary extensions since then.

Buzz Shiely, a driver in Loudoun County, Va., inspects a school bus. A federal bill would provide more money for school districts to replace older, more polluting buses.

The House and the Senate have spent countless hours trying to finish the package. Last year, both chambers passed versions of the bill, but negotiations to reconcile them ultimately collapsed.

Earlier this year, the two chambers once again passed competing versions, each with broad, bipartisan support. The House passed its bill on March10 by a vote of 417-9. The Senate followed suit on May 17on a 89-11 vote. On June 9, lawmakers convened for the first meeting of a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile their differences.

“[T]here are only a few issues that truly divide us,” Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a prepared statement at that meeting. “We are making progress, and if we continue to meet and to discuss our concerns, there is simply no reason this bill cannot be sent to the president before the current extension expires on June 30.”

The House and Senate bills differ somewhat on school-related provisions.

For example, on the issue of using vans to transport students, the House version would bar a state from accessing certain federal transportation aid if it did not prevent the use of nine- to 15-passenger vans to transport students. Currently, about 30 states already prohibit the use of such vans for transporting students.

National reports have bolstered the argument that school buses are safer than other vehicles. For example, a 2002 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted that the fatality rate for school bus occupants was far lower than the overall rate for motor vehicles.

The Senate version says school districts may not buy, rent, or lease new 15-passenger vans for transporting students unless the vehicles comply with the strict safety standards that apply to school buses.

Federal law for more than two decades has prohibited car dealerships from selling or leasing new vans to school districts to transport students, but it’s still not hard to find school systems using them for that purpose, said Charles L. Gauthier, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, based in The Plains, Va.

The highway bill would also take steps to help reduce air pollution from schoolbuses. For the past three years, the Environmental Protection Agency has budgeted a modest sum, $7.5 million in the current fiscal year, to provide grants to replace school buses with more environmentally friendly models, or to retrofit them with less-polluting technology. The focus of the Clean School Bus USA program is on using alternative fuels, such as natural gas or ultra-low- sulfur fuel.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for schools that have old school buses to replace them,” Mr. Gauthier of the state directors’ group said of the program. He said that not only are the new buses be environmentally cleaner, they also have the latest safety features.

Both the House and Senate bills would formally authorize the Clean School Bus USA program, which has been receiving an annual appropriation without any supporting legislation. The bills would also call for substantially higher spending levels.

The program is backed not only by the school transportation industry, but also by environmental groups and others.

The emphasis is on “retiring the oldest, dirtiest school buses,” said Michelle A. Robinson, the Washington director for the Union of Concerned Scientists clean-vehicles program.

In addition to the environmental benefits, she argues that there are health benefits for children in making yellow school buses “greener.”

“It’s also a little-noticed health issue for kids,” Ms. Robinson said.

On the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Web site, the advocacy group notes that pollution from diesel engines has been linked to increased asthma rates, chronic bronchitis, and other health problems.

On Foot or by Bike

Meanwhile, the transportation legislation aims to make it easier for children to get to school by foot or bike.

The House bill would authorize $875 million over five years for the Safe Routes to School program. The Senate contains a similar measure, but with a smaller price tag, about $300 million.

The initiative grew out of several programs across the country that pay for projects to make walking and biking safer for children, such as building crosswalks and countdown signals at traffic lights.

Far fewer children use those means to reach school than in the past, said Kevin S. McCarty, the policy director for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington advocacy group.

He estimated that in the 1960s, more than 60 percent of children walked to school. Now, he said, it’s about 10 percent.

“The big issue for education,” he said, “is how much of your education budgets are now being consumed by school transportation costs. … It’s an incredible waste of money.”

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