New R-7 buses are ‘quieter, cleaner…bigger, bolder’

tporter@lsjournal.comAugust 2, 2013 

  • $11 million The amount the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District expects to save over the next 10 years by switching to a fleet of school buses powered by compressed natural gas.

A clean energy initiative within the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District will not only pay dividends for the environment, but also line the district with enough resources to fund improved technology infrastructure in all of its schools and buildings.

In a brief presentation Aug. 1 to kick off an open house event to tout the district’s new compressed natural gas-powered school buses, R-7 Superintendent David McGehee said a portion of the estimated $11 millon in overall savings from a 10-year initiative to use alternative resources will generate enough capital to fund technology infrastructure improvements throughout the school district.

The district showcased two of what will become a fleet of 149 school buses powered by CNG, the largest school bus conversion in the nation according to McGehee.

“There are a lot of advantages to these school buses,” McGehee said. “They’re quieter, they’re cleaner, and they will reduce our dependency on foreign oil products.”

The R-7 district partnered with Clean Energy – owned by billionaire oil and natural gas magnate T. Boone Pickens – and North Carolina-based Thomas Built Buses, among other entities, in the conversion. Representatives from Clean Energy and Thomas Built Buses on hand for the ceremony agreed the district is at the forefront of school bus conversion.

“Nothing gets done unless you want it to get done,” said Clean Energy’s Peter Grace, the company’s senior vice president for sales and finance. “They have really been terrific. We’re kind of forging a little bit of new ground for this. They’re very creative and I think they had a very good vision of what they wanted to do. We learned a lot from them (and) I think they picked up a couple of things from us.”

Added Kelley Pratt, president and CEO of Thomas Built Buses: “This has been a great experience for us working with the team from Lee’s Summit. They have been very innovative in how they have combined financing our green buses to take advantage of the lower fuel costs and been able to reuse that money to reapply it to different areas where they need it in the school district. It’s the first time that I have seen somebody actually use the purchase of school buses as a way to be able to generate additional money to go into their school district.

“It just takes school transportation in a whole different direction from the way people have traditionally thought about it. I think it’s going to be a good example of what can be used by other districts in the future in other parts of the country. Lee’s Summit really is on the cutting edge of school transportation here in North America.”

According to the district, the goal of the project is to use innovative funding methods and alternative resources to benefit student achievement and reduce taxpayers’ liability. Funding sources for the program include a variety of local, state and federal resources, corporate and utility partnerships, district savings and redirected alternate funds.

The program stems from a lease purchase plan to finance the new CNG-powered buses, new CNG trucks and vans, technology infrastructure and equipment, and the purchase of property to build a new, district-operated CNG public fueling station to serve the community.

“Our bus fleet has been aging,” McGehee said. “Our average bus age is around 12 years; the average for our state is about 8 ½ years, so we needed to come up with an innovative way to begin to replace that aging bus fleet, but we wanted to do it in a bigger and bolder way. It’s going to save millions of dollars for our district, and ultimately our taxpayers.

“While our environment and our taxpayers are important, they’re not the most important benefactors of this initiative. The most important winners of this transition are our students if you consider all of the things that we are going to be able to do for them as a result of our savings.”

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