At-the-pump diesel prices have fallen nationwide by nearly 12 cents in the past two and a half weeks, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Student transporters are reporting that, at least for the time being.
In March and early April, the national average retail price of No. 2 diesel reached nearly $4.15 a gallon, the highest since diesel hit $4.17 a gallon prior to Labor Day 2008. In late May 2008, diesel hit its apex at $4.78 a gallon.
Most student transporters pay less for bulk fuel subsidized by the federal fuel tax exemption for school buses, yet rising fuel prices always hit district transportation budgets hard. Brian Whitta, director of transportation for Bowling Green City Schools in Ohio said diesel increased by more than $1 per gallon from October 2010 through October 2011.
"I have not seen the price fall back to a reasonable level, but rather, each load of fuel becomes more and more expensive," Whitta said in May via School Transportation News' LinkedIn group. "In one truckload of fuel, the dollar increase equates to $7,500 of added expense. It has been a true budget-buster this year."
Fuel prices began to drop after Memorial Day, which was an unforeseen benefit for Michael Reinders, director of transportation at Winnebago Schools in Rockford, Ill. With such a volatile market, he questioned when if anytime would be good for a district to employ fuel hedging techniques or enter into a contract to cap the cost in an effort to avoid large increases in the future. But the drawback can be fixing at a higher price than what the market currently demands.
"When would most have purchased if hedging? A month ago, when it looked like fuel was going to continue to trend upward?" asked Reinders on Linkedin at the end of last month. "Today, is it at the bottom? Today's pump price is $3.759, down from $4.059 two months ago."
Bob Streeter, director of transportation at Dysart Unified School District in Arizona, said fuel prices rose 62 cents per gallon from January through March before falling to just below $3.50 per gallon in April.
"Last year was more stable, or at least the change was not as volatile," he posted on LinkedIn. "In the (20)10-11 school year, we contracted for a set price for about six months, so at least we knew what the cost was going to be. That was at the beginning of the major price changes. I would say it helped us a little but it is a gamble.
"Right now I think I would ride this out as I believe it is going to continue to come down, then I might consider another hedge."
For Churchill County School District near Reno, Nev., Director of Transportation Steve Russell said the use of a diesel-natural gas blend known as "G" diesel has kept per gallon prices at $3.01 as of June 4.
"Been using it for a year and have shown an increase of fuel mileage and no sign of vehicle damage," he added.
Collins Bus announced in December an agreement with BAF to develop the first CNG fuel system for a Type A school bus. Collins said CNG, when compared to diesel and gasoline fuels, provides a reduction in greenhouse emissions and has the potential to reduce fuel costs by 25 percent to 40 percent. The option was expected to be available this spring or summer. The company also offers its Type A NEXBUS with hybrid-electric and propane options.
Adding to fuel-saving options for districts is the new all-electric eTrans Type A from Trans Tech Bus, which was unveiled last fall at the NAPT Summit in Cincinnati. The eTrans runs on a 120kw induction motor and reaches speeds of up to 60 mph. The school bus has a trip range of approximately 120 to 130 miles per charge from its two lithium-ion batteries depending on load and driving conditions. The bus can be recharged in about six to eight hours.
Recently, more propane autogas users have also reported spending less for fuel while seeing increased fuel mileage. For example, Hall County School System in north Georgia said it is paying $2 per gallon compared to $3.50 per gallon for diesel. The school district expects to save $36,000 in fuel costs this year from its 20 new Blue Bird 72-passenger Vision propane buses. Propane autogas, which costs up to 50 percent less than diesel fuel, offers reduced maintenance costs and extended engine life potential.
Thomas Built Buses is expected to go into production soon on its own conventional school bus powered by propane.