Rolling out old school buses

September 21, 1992

Would you keep a car on the road for more than 12 years? Not likely. But that's what two local jurisdictions are doing with school buses as a result of a new state law and a $55 million reduction in state funding for school bus programs.

Enacted last May, the law allows local education departments to operate school buses beyond the 12-year limit set in the early 1970s. The only jurisdictions to exercise the option so far are Baltimore County and, to a lesser degree, Baltimore City.

Baltimore County saw its state bus funding drop from $14 million last fiscal year to $10 million this year. Also, more than 3,000 new students just entered the county's schools. The education department plans to purchase 32 new buses, though they won't be ready until next September. So school system officials felt they had little choice this year but to continue operating 53 13-year-old buses that otherwise would have been retired.

The funding cut and the resulting necessity to press old buses into service have elicited two key objections from officials of the county's education department and school bus companies.

One objection is to the expense of maintaining the old buses. It's pricey, and the costs get increasingly steep after the eighth or ninth year, the officials say. To the maintenance fees, add the $3,000 retrofitting the state requires for each bus that remains in service beyond its 12th year.

County and bus company officials view these short-term costs as a waste of money compared to the long-term benefits of buying new buses. At about $40,000 apiece, the new models aren't cheap. But they offer bargain value because they're better-equipped and far more durable than the old buses ever were, the officials claim.

Their other objection concerns safety. Most school bus accidents involve older buses. According to the state's Department of Education, 18 accidents caused by a bus defect occurred in Maryland from 1989 through 1991. In most cases, those buses were 10 or 11 years old.

A few of the accidents resulted in personal injuries, but no fatalities. Optimists might look at the numbers and say they aren't so bad -- "only" 18 accidents in three years, out of 5,000 school buses running daily in the state.

Yet imagine the public outcry if a 13-year-old bus were involved in a deadly tragedy. State officials say a bus won't be pushed beyond 12 years unless it passes a tough inspection, but some bus company officials, cursing the recession, worry the cash-strapped state lacks the manpower to do proper examinations.

The worsening money crunch has created many unpleasant necessities in the state. They now include the transporting of kids in buses that might be better off on the scrap heap than on the road.

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