Sunday, June 17, 2018
Education

Group pitches deal to Hillsborough schools for 350 propane buses

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District can save money and get its worst clunkers off the road with 350 new propane buses, a group of businesses said Thursday.

The group, which calls itself the "Hillsborough Green Bus Team," wants the district to spend $7.5 million a year on a five-year lease-purchase deal that would replace about 25 percent of its diesel-powered fleet with new buses from the Georgia-based Blue Bird Corp.

The package includes 1.5 percent interest financing from SunTrust Bank and a guaranteed fuel price of $1.56 per gallon for the first two years through AmeriGas, which would provide the fueling stations.

"This is a viable option to quickly bring the fleet up to date and regain public confidence in its service to the community," Chris Rustman, president of Florida Transportation Systems wrote in a letter to the district.

The pitch — made collectively by SunTrust, Amerigas and Florida Transportation, a dealer for Blue Bird — comes as superintendent MaryEllen Elia prepares to ask for School Board approval on June 10 to buy about 100 buses. Alternative fuels were discussed briefly at board workshops. But a consultant said the district should consider such a move carefully, weighing lower fuel costs against higher bus prices.

"We feel like we need to start buying buses right now," said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

At a news conference, Rustman said much of the $7.5 million yearly cost will be offset by savings on fuel and repairs, along with government rebates for green technology.

Nearly $100 million is at stake as the district revamps its troubled bus system, something vendors are eyeing closely.

Rustman made two $500 donations to the Hillsborough County Commission campaign of School Board member Stacy White in November and April. Asked about them Thursday, he said he thinks White would be a good commissioner.

White pointed out that he also got money — $500 in June —from lobbyist Louis Betz, who now represents competitor Matthews Buses, Inc., based in New York.

"So there's balance," White said. "I'll have to make a decision on June 10 in which one or both gentlemen will be disappointed."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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