Tennessee bill will extend lives of school buses

photo Stephanie Davis closes the door to her bus after driving her route for registration day at Sequatchie County Schools.

NASHVILLE - School districts that own their own school buses may get some relief as a new bill approved by the Tennessee General Assembly will allow school buses to stay on the road longer.

The bill, which is projected to save local school systems an estimated $56 million in the 2014-2015 school year alone, was given final approval by the House on Monday following its passage last week by senators.

Sponsored by Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, the bill authorizes the use of conventional and Class D school buses until their 18th year of service. Buses that are older can go beyond that time limit provided they have less than 200,000 miles and are inspected twice annually.

Currently, school buses in Tennessee are allowed to operate up to 15 years with a 200,000-mile limit, whichever comes first, if they pass additional inspections.

The bill is a compromise between warring school districts and bus manufacturers with some schools' officals charging that the current limits were put in place to encourage more bus sales. Schools maintain that the high-mileage buses can operate safely given adequate inspections and there was a bill to do just that.

"The legislation will save millions of dollars for our local governments over the next several years, ensuring that more money can be spent in our children's classrooms," Travis said in a statement.

For a school system like Hamilton County, which contracts its bus services to Durham Transportation and other independent contractors, the bill won't spark any immediate change.

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But for those systems that own their own buses it means they can potentially get more life out of the costly vehicles.

Paul Ramsey, supervisor of facilties at Cleveland City Schools, said the bill may give them some breathing room. A new bus can cost up to $90,000, he said. Currently, the state allows Cleveland to use buses for up to 17 years. The bill means they'll get an additional year. Ramsey said they were hoping for more leeway from the General Assembly. But this bill is a start.

"We were hoping for more than that but we'll take whatever we can get," he said. "We want our drivers and students to be safe. That's always the priority. But we feel like buses can operate longer than the 200,000 miles and the 18th year."

Some school districts were pushing for much higher mileage limits -- as much as 400,000. But 400,000 miles on a yellow school bus isn't comparable to 400,000 miles on a consumer minivan or sedan.

"A bus is built like a tank," said Ben Coulter, Hamilton County Schools' transportation supervisor. "It's built to deal with the road conditions and it's built to be able to handle a major impact. And you just don't see a lot of that."

Bell, the Senate sponsor of the new law, said last week that states outside Tennessee wait like "vultures" to buy perfectly good buses that are deemed unusable under state law.

House Transportation Commissioner Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, said his panel held hearings with school bus manufacturers, contract school bus drivers, local education agencies and Safety Department officials.

The need for a compromise was "glaring," Dean said.

"Every party has their own priorities and their own needs, but the primary priority of the House from the beginning has been the safety of our children and the efficient use of our taxpayers' money," Dean said in a news release. "Rep. Travis and I have worked diligently to come up with a compromise that satisfies all involved."