Air Resources Board extends bus retrofit deadlines

The California Air Resources Board has extended deadlines for school districts to upgrade bus fleets to meet new emission-control standards.

Following amendments approved by the ARB last week, school districts now have until 2012 to begin retrofitting bus engines with particulate matter' filters, which capture certain pollutants before they enter the air.

The original emission control requirements, passed by the ARB two years ago, required districts to start the retrofitting process in 2011.

The deadline for completing the retrofits is still 2014. Any bus that can't be retrofitted with a PM filter and is not a new diesel' or alternative-fueled bus must be taken off the road by 2018.

Members of the ARB said Friday that the 2008 regulations were still a priority, but the board wanted to adjust the deadlines to help private and public transportation agencies comply in a time of economic uncertainty.

We're out here doing the best we can to balance some objectives that we have," said Mary Nichols, chair of the ARB governing board, at the hearing. "One of those objectives is to follow the law that tells us that we are required to take necessary actions to clean up the air, and we take that mission seriously."

Several school bus advocates that attended the Friday hearing said they also took pollution seriously, but they wanted more time and more funding to comply with the requirements or they warned school transportation would shut down.

"Although these amendments do delay the rules for school transportation, they are still overly burdensome," said Michael Rea, spokesman for the California Association of School Transportation Officials.

"The impact of that is that school districts are making decisions to severely reduce, restrict, or eliminate school transportation," he said.

The state has provided some funding to meet the requirements. Proposition 1B, approved by voters in 2007, gave schools $200 million in general obligation bonds to replace and retrofit bus fleets.

ARB officials have maintained that retrofitting school buses with PM filters is the most cost-effective use of the funds. But school districts largely disagree, arguing that replacing a bus is both cheaper in the long term and safer for children.

As a result, most of the Proposition 1B funds were used to replace school buses, leaving an estimated additional cost of $60 million for districts to comply with the standards, said ARB officials.

At Friday's hearing, Nichols from the ARB scolded school advocates on a decision that she said was irresponsible.

"If you and the other districts, instead of putting all the money into new buses, had put filters on, we would be saving lives...and we wouldn't be back here today dealing with all these old buses," she said.

But school transportation officials stood by their decision to replace their older buses instead of retrofitting them.

Installing PM filters poses an "operational nightmare," said Kirk Hunter, who represents the Fresno-based Southwest Transportation Agency, which provides transportation services for 13 school districts.

"(The PM filter) is like putting a potato in the exhaust," he said. "We have to intermittently put buses out of service because they fill up with oil."

According to ARB officials, federal and state funds are still available in some regions to help districts comply with the requirements. Officials have asked school districts to inquire about funding through local air quality districts.

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