South Carolina, the only state that fully funds public school buses, is making some progress in replacing its aging school bus fleet, but it should be making a lot more. Its fleet may be the oldest in the nation, with the average bus being 14 years old.
More than 80 percent of Aiken County's 143 route buses are at least 12 years old; the figure is 87 percent for the state as a whole - 5,600 school buses. Such old gas-guzzlers are a hazard for passengers, bus drivers and anybody else who might be on the road. So much for safety first.
Also, state taxpayers shell out a lot of bucks to keep the school buses running in terms of soaring pump prices, maintenance expenses and pollution emissions. The Aiken bus shop, for instance, averages 72 service calls a month. Not all repairs are major, but major repairs do become more numerous as the buses age. Transmissions cost from $1,500 to $3,000 to fix, and engines from $5,000 to $10,000.
Even so, in the very short run keeping the aging relics on the road may be less expensive than buying new buses, but over the longer term it's a lot more expensive. The sooner that safer, more fuel efficient and technologically superior buses are hauling the state's public school kids around, the better - and safer - it is for everybody.
This is why state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum's recent announcement that her agency is buying 630 new school buses, all of which should be in operation by the end of the year, is very good news. This marks the largest such purchase order since 1995, and at least 15 new 65-passenger buses and two special 35-passenger buses are slated for Aiken County.
That's an improvement, but not big enough. There still are far too many buses that need to be replaced. State Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenton, for years has led the charge to speed up the state's purchase program of new buses, but the best he's been able to get his colleagues to go along with is a 15-year replacement cycle.
A bill urged by Smith that would have put all buses on a 12-year or 250,000-mile replacement schedule died in the Senate this year - the $30 million a year cost was considered too high. But the cost is high because of the state's neglect of the issue for so many years. The slower the replacement schedule, the more expensive it gets.
Improving the bus system should be a high-priority campaign issue this year.