May 2, 2023:

Effective School Transportation for Our Drivers and Our Students

The House Republican Policy Committee, at the direction of Chairman Kail, convened a public hearing in the Capitol to discuss the services provided by our school transportation community, as well as the obstacles they face. The men and women licensed to drive our students to and from their schools and extracurricular activities are integral to the entire educational system, and their services provide opportunity to children across the Commonwealth. The Committee heard directly from family-owned school transportation providers on advances in busing technologies, the status of their fleets and compensation, as well as actions requested from the legislature.

The testifiers that joined the Policy Committee were as follows:

Aaron Sepkowski - President, Pocono Transportation

DJ Frye- Owner, Frye Transportation Group

Todd Rittenhouse - Fleet Manager, Rittenhouse Bus Lines

Agenda - Bios - Testimony

Our school bus drivers, and the transportation providers that maintain the vehicles, are absolutely integral to our children’s education. Getting a child to and from school, safely, is the first step in providing a positive and productive future for our next generation. To highlight the efforts of our transportation providers, and obstacles they are facing, the Committee was joined first by Aaron Sepkowski, President of Pocono Transportation, to share insight into the services his team provides to our schools, children, and community.

Pocono Transportation contracts with local school districts to provide safe and reliable transportation to students to-and from their schools as well as to sporting events and field trips. The schools trust that Pocono Transportation’s vehicles are well maintained and that their drivers are professional. Mr. Sepkowski shared that over 80% of PA students are transported to and from school each day on a big yellow school bus, and whether the transportation is a contracted service or provided by the district itself the regulations and qualifications remain the same.

The core component of any school bus is not within the technology or machining, but the driver. Driving a school bus, full of our most precious cargo, is no task to take lightly. Currently, prospective bus drivers require 12 weeks of intensive training before they are able to be licensed, and must be familiar with the vehicle inside and out. The licensing and requirements to become a bus driver are absolutely necessary, but some elements are onerous and intimidating to those looking to enter the field.

Currently, to receive a license to drive a school bus one must pursue similar training to that of a big-rig trucker. The vehicles and nature of driving are obviously different, but the requirements for the license are not. In particular, school bus drivers are required to have “under the hood” knowledge of the vehicles inner workings. This requirement is unnecessary as the driver would never be in a position to leave the vehicle and look under the hood, even in the event of a maintenance incident, and instead would always be able to rely on a traveling maintenance team of professionals to inspect the vehicle while the driver remains alongside the students. Pennsylvania, as well as the federal government, has approved “School Bus Only” CDL licensing that does not require “Under the Hood” knowledge, but this specific license requires a waiver and an overly bureaucratic process. Mr. Sepkowski requested that this “School Bus Only” waiver be enshrined in law to ease the entry into a career as a school bus driver and bring our licenses in-line with the realities of the job.

“We want to provide the best possible transportation to our neighbors, families, and friends.”

Aaron Sepkowski
President, Pocono Transportation

DJ Frye, owner of Frye Transportation Group, joined the committee to share insight into the costs associated with providing transportation to our students, as well as proposed changes to busses and transportation that pose immense financial and infrastructure concerns. Of large concern to transportation providers is the effort to electrify our school buses. Schools and transportation providers are facing immense financial issues when pushed to electrify their fleets, as the buses, charging stations, and maintenance equipment is significantly more expensive than traditional clean diesel busses. For perspective, a traditional clean diesel school bus costs roughly $100,000 , while a new electric bus costs $400,000 without including all of the needed charging equipment and ancillary tools. The cost to electrify is simply too high for many schools and transportation providers to justify.

Another consideration that must be made when trying to “modernize” vehicle fleets with electricity is the charging devices needed and the impact on our overall electric grid. Charging devices vary dramatically based on charge times and the number of hook-ups, but generally cost between $20,000 and $75,000. Furthermore, the local grid operator must inspect the lots where these buses are parked to assure that the electric grid can handle the newly increased load, and that the buses can continue to function 24/7 365 days a year. Electrification poses a risk to the reliability of our busses, as large volumes of electric energy cannot be stored on-site in the manner that diesel fuel can.

In short, our existing school bus infrastructure is effective, reliable, and safe. This is not a realm to experiment with, as our children’s education is dependent on established and predictable routines. Advancements in technology and fuel sources must be tried and tested before the cost to institute them is levied on our schools and communities.

“The number one safety component is the individual behind the wheel.”

DJ Frye
Owner, Frye Transportation Group

The final testifier for the day’s hearing was Todd Rittenhouse, Fleet manager of Rittenhouse Bus Lines. He, like the other testifiers, manages a team of drivers and buses that serve PA schools and students. He expressed similar concerns to those shared by previous testifiers, and added further insight into the costs associated with school transportation, the nature of school transportation in PA, and the risks posed by efforts to electrify our bussing fleets.

PA school districts are large, and a daily bus route for a single driver may cover 150 miles and traverse up to 5 townships. Not all districts are the same in geographic makeup, and what may work in a city environment might not be applicable to rural roads or highways. With this in mind, electric buses are not currently capable of meeting the needs of rural or exceedingly large districts as the technology needed to ensure our students get to-and-from school each day does not yet exist. The maximum range of the electric buses being pushed on our schools and transportation providers is between 100 and 150 miles per day, in ideal conditions. This range is not acceptable for many schools, and will not enable students to travel for sporting events or field trips. Furthermore, in unideal conditions such as the entirety of winter, the batteries within the buses charge slower and die faster – losing 40% of their efficiency - in cold conditions.

Efforts to “modernize” our bus fleets via federal incentives or state programs is not new. Past efforts to encourage natural gas powered buses have been entirely replaced with the new effort to electrify our fleet. Who is to say that a new technology or fuel will replace the “electrification” efforts we’re seeing today? This is an expensive gamble, fraught with risk, that our schools and communities are expected to finance. If a school contracts with a busing provider, and the provider is coerced or forced to purchase all new electric buses, then the transportation provider will be forced to send a significant bill to the school or else go out of business. Federal grants for electric bus fleets are available, but thus far they have largely led to increases in traditional clean diesel bus costs and not led to any financial savings or increased safety for our schools or communities.

“Electric vehicle grants are nice… but what will happen when the grants run out?!”

Todd Rittenhouse
Fleet Manager, Rittenhouse Bus Lines

As with so many other industries, our transportation providers are struggling with onerous regulations and the uninformed policies of federal programs. A simple change to bus driver licensing, a commonsense amendment to the “Under the Hood” requirement that already exists as a regularly used waiver, will ease entry into the career. Allowing the free market, along with tried-and-true technologies, to lead investment in future bus fleets is preferable to government programs and biased incentives. Our children’s transportation to and from school is paramount to the Commonwealth’s future success, and the testifiers shared that our largest concerns should be reliability and safety. Our existing fleets are reliable, and constant efforts are undertaken to ensure our drivers are well-trained and equipped to safely perform their duties.

The House Republican Policy Committee concluded the day’s hearing by thanking the men and women who provide the first component of our children’s education, a safe trip to and from our front doors to the schoolyard. The Committee learned of some legislative efforts that can be pursued within the state to ease entry into a career of bus driving, as well as insight and concerns over changes occurring within the industry. The testifiers that joined the day’s events are experts in their fields, passionate about the services they provide, and the keystone component of our entire education system. The Commonwealth must ensure that our means of transporting our children to the places where they will grow into valuable members of society are not put at risk, and that we have safe and reliable busing for generations to come.