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Advanced new school buses come to Tigard-Tualatin

Student Transportation of America's fleet is equipped with safety-first tech features.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A fleet of propane-powered buses is ready for the start of the new school year in the Tigard-Tualatin School District.A fleet of 85 brand-new, propane-fueled school buses will hit the streets of Tigard and Tualatin next week.

Equipped with a host of safety features, the buses are provided by the Tigard-Tualatin School District's new school bus contractor, Student Transportation of America.

This February, the school board voted to approve a $4.7 million annual contract with STA, a New Jersey-based company which provides transportation to over 200 districts across North America.

High-tech delivers peace of mind

More than 8,000 students are transported by the Tigard-Tualatin School District's buses and other transit services every year. The majority of those students will ride STA buses this fall.

Every bus in the new fleet comes equipped with a GPS system.

Staff will be able to track bus positions online in real time, helping parents stay aware of arrival times.

The GPS technology will also monitor if bus drivers are speeding.

"If they're even one mile per hour above speed limit, we get a report the next morning," said Geoff Smoke, a local operations manager for STA.

The same system will monitor whether buses sit idle too long and generate automatic vehicle performance reports.

The buses will also be equipped with cameras and a crossing arm which extends out from the bus, preventing children from walking too close to the front of the bus when they cross the street.

Such features offer peace of mind to both families and school bus drivers.

"People should know how excited the drivers are," said Deedee Jenkins, a local operations manager for STA. School bus drivers are hired by the company the district contracts with.

Of the 64 drivers who were employed by First Student, the district's previous contractor, around 40 to 45 were offered positions with STA. 35 accepted and the company is hiring an additional 45 drivers.

"(The drivers) take a lot of pride in what they do. They very much enjoy driving the kids and now they're going to have brand-new buses which will help them go a long way in keeping kids safe," added Jenkins.

The five-year deal — which includes an option for up to a five-year extension — comes after the district's contract with longtime provider First Student ended. At that time, the district decided to seek out proposals from other companies, and STA was awarded the contract.

One major selling point was STA's ability to offer buses that meet energy efficiency standards.

With fewer greenhouse gas emissions, the new fleet of propane buses will lessen the district's carbon footprint.

Quieter and cleaner buses

"When you have 15 buses sitting outside a school, blowing diesel, that's not a healthy environment compared to propane," said Katrina Tompkins, the district's transportation manager.

The district, which has its own fleet of 20 buses for students with special needs, directly purchased its first propane bus this year.

Long-term, propane buses will also be more sustainable financially. Maintenance costs for propane tanks are cheaper than they are for diesel, said Tompkins.

Of the 85 new buses furnished by STA, 70 are dedicated to regular routes, 10 are designated for field trips, and five will be kept as spares.

"They're all going to have that new-bus smell," said Jenkins.

Tigard-Tualatin will be the second district in Oregon to contract with STA. The company first expanded into the state last year when it began contracting with the Lake Oswego School District.

Along with Tigard-Tualatin, the company is also contracting with the Canby School District this school year. Classes started Tuesday for some Canby students.

With more buses come more routes.

"We've had to cut routes, in the past, to the point where we were compromising service to schools," said Tompkins.

Six additional routes will help ensure buses arrive to school on time. Bus lines were redistributed to create 70 routes in all.

School bus routes typically service three runs, including elementary, middle and high schools.

This year, any given route will service two runs instead of three. For instance, a route might travel to an elementary school and a middle school, or a middle school and a high school.

Schools will communicate any route changes to families in the coming weeks.

The first day of school for first- through sixth-graders and high school freshmen in the Tigard-Tualatin School District is Sept. 6, with all other grades except kindergarten beginning classes Sept. 7. Kindergarten officially starts in the district on Sept. 12.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Geoff Smoke, local operations manager for Student Transportation of America, checks out a new propane-powered bus.