Recent fires aboard South Carolina school buses are a frightening reminder that state lawmakers are woefully behind in updating the state’s aging school bus fleet.
Seventeen public school buses have caught fire or dangerously overheated since August 2015. That is the most school-bus fires in a decade, and many of the buses involved were among the more than 1,000 bought in the 1990s or earlier.
In 2007, lawmakers pledged they would budget enough money to replace the state’s entire bus fleet every 15 years. But after continually failing to set aside the money, the state now would need $72 million to replace buses bought in the 1990s that are causing most of the problems.
Those aged buses, which also include some purchased in the 1980s, now total more than a third of the state’s 5,600 buses.
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State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who has lobbied for modernizing the bus fleet since taking office, notes that it would require setting aside at least $34 million a year to replace enough buses to comply with the 15-year replacement cycle. But this session, the S.C. House approved only $31 million for new buses, while the S.C. Senate allocated only $17 million.
At that rate, the quality and reliability of the state’s school bus fleet will continue to decline.
This not only poses a danger to the students who ride the buses but also is a fiscally unsound approach. Older buses cost 49 cents a mile for fuel and parts needed to keep them on the road, while a bus purchased from 2013-15 costs 21 cents a mile.
With many other pressing and long-ignored problems, we realize that upgrading the state’s school bus fleet might not rank as the Legislature’s highest priority. But this problem has been punted for far too long.
We hope it won’t take a serious school bus accident to wake up state lawmakers to the need to replace buses that should have been culled from the fleet long ago.