LONGMONT — Students in the St. Vrain Valley School District could face longer bus rides and more frequent transfers this year because of the rising cost of fuel.
Where two buses may have been sent out last year to pick up students in two distant neighborhoods, this year one bus may make a single but longer trip.
Eight bus routes have been modified to save fuel, which means some students in St. Vrain may also be transferred between two or even three buses before making it to their classrooms.
Even with the changes, transportation officials can’t predict whether the district’s gas money will hold out.
According to Rick Ring, director of the school district’s transportation services division, fuel costs for school buses have increased 37 percent in the past 18 months.
“We’re doing a lot more location transfers to maximize our fuel economy,” Ring said.
In addition to the transfers and route consolidations, the department will also shorten the distance between bus garages and pickup sites. Buses on Tri-Town routes that left depots in Longmont last year, for example, will now leave from the Tri-Town area to minimize driving time.
In another cost-saving measure, bus drivers will now be allowed to let their engines idle for only five minutes this year. They had 15 minutes last year. If buses will be running idle longer than that, drivers will have to turn the engines off.
“We’re placing fuel as a priority instead of as a secondary thought,” Ring said. “After safety, the cost of fuel is the biggest thing we’re monitoring.”
Along with several counties, cities and other school districts, St. Vrain participates in the Metro Area Purchasing Co-op that buys fuel through Hill Petroleum. Even with the price reductions from cooperative purchasing, Ring said, he can’t be sure his department won’t need to request additional funds before the end of the school year.
Fuel tanks in school buses hold between 60 and 100 gallons of gas. A year and a half ago, it cost the district $145 to fill a 100-gallon tank at co-op prices. Today, it costs $200 to fill the same tank.
Since 1997, when Ring began heading up transportation services for the district, his department has needed to request additional fuel money only once. That was in 2002, when “fuel costs started rocketing,” he said.
Though the district would be fine financially if fuel costs froze at current levels, Ring worries that the current transportation budget won’t cover costs if the price of gas continues upward.
“Not if prices continue to go the way they are,” he said.
Adding to busing costs this year is an increased coverage area, with the new Erie High School and Trail Ridge Middle School open now and Altona Middle School expected to open late this year or early next year.
Mark Pillmore, the district’s chief financial officer, hopes the transportation department’s fuel budget of $397,000 — up from $352,000 budgeted for fuel last year, and $306,000 actually spent on fuel — is enough.
“Any time we see costs rising at the rate that fuel is, and the possibility that it could exceed our budget amounts, it’s worrisome,” he said. “The good news is that fuel is a small percentage of our general fund budget.”
If fuel costs increase beyond budgeted amounts, Pillmore said the district would have to evaluate what sort of measures would be necessary at that time.
Even if loaded buses driving more efficient routes aren’t enough to stretch gas money, Ring doubts the district would cut bus service.
“I don’t see us making changes to routes in the middle of the school year,” he said.
Ben Ready can be reached at 303-684-5326, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
St. Vrain Valley School District Department of Transportation by the numbers
• Buses: 107
• Routes: 82
• Miles covered by buses per school year: 1.3 million
• Average age of buses in fleet: 7.5 years
• Average miles per gallon: 9
• Daily number of students who ride buses: 6,000
• Total transportation budget for ’05-’06 school year: $3.6 million
• Transportation budget money allotted for fuel: $397,000, 11 percent of total