The Lawrence E. Jones Middle School on Snyder Lane was the site of an unusual award ceremony Thursday afternoon as State Assemblyman Jared Huffman, (D-San Rafael), presented his monthly sustainability recognition award.
The award was presented to West County Transportation Agency, a Santa Rosa-based joint powers busing group made up of several school districts in the county that the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District began using for its school bus service in 2010.
The idea of huge, yellow diesel-powered school buses going “green” might strike some as an oxymoron, but Michael Rea, executive director of the bus company explained that with changes in technology, and converting the fleet to buses that run on either Compressed Natural Gas or ultra-low sulfur diesel, that the company is not only helping to preserve the environment — but is saving the participating school districts money.
“One of the initial things that make it sustainable is the fact that we’re keeping cars carrying up to 84 students off the road,” Rea said. “But West County Transportation also has a commitment to alternative energy. We have 44 CNG buses — the largest CNG fleet in the North Bay. And we have approximately 117 diesel-powered buses. In those buses, we have either repowered the engines or installed exhaust filters. The result is they run well in advance of California Air Quality Resource Board requirements."
Rea added that the buses in the fleet that do run on diesel use the ultra-low sulfur variety of the fuel.
Rea told Huffman and an assembled crowd of about five school and local officials that the price of CNG comes out to about $1.50 per gallon at current rates — far below average fuel prices.
The West County Transportation Agency is a joint powers agreement between Sonoma County school districts that have banded together to provide bus service.
The board, made up of representatives of the 16 county schools, embarked on an aggressive pursuit of grants years ago to retrofit existing buses and to buy new fuel efficient models. The majority of schools that the bus company serves are in western and northern Sonoma County. Rohnert Park is the southernmost school in the agency.
The event was held at the Lawrence E. Jones Middle School in Rohnert Park largely due to the fact that the school, which was completed in 1995, was constructed with an eye toward energy efficiency long before energy-efficiency standards became popular, according to an official from Huffman’s office.
Rea acknowledged that the reason the event was being held at the school because it was the only school in the agency’s jurisdiction within Huffman’s legislative district, which encompasses all of Marin and southern Sonoma County.
J. Wade Roach, business manager for the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, said that signing with WCTA came about at contract negotiation time two years ago with previous bus service provider Laidlaw.
“We put the contract out to bid and we pleasantly surprised at the savings that the district was able to get by going with West County,” Roach said.
Huffman’s Sustainable North Bay Award has been a stipend of the legislator’s time in office with awards being given to businesses throughout his district on a near-monthly basis since taking office in January 2007.
In February, Cotati’s . Another Cotati business, Knimble Clothing and Knick Knack, was given the honor in October 2008.
Huffman said that WCTA getting the Sustainable North Bay Award was important because it brings cash-strapped schools together and allows them to share resources.
“The award is important because school transportation is not adequately funded,” Huffman said. “I mean let’s face it — I would love to fund school transportation and other parts of our school system better. But these type of creative joint ventures allow folks to stretch the limit of dollars we do have. We have an awful lot of small districts, especially in Sonoma County. The more you can get folks to sort of ‘functionally collaborate’ if not consolidate, probably the better. And this is a great example of districts working together to save dollars.”