Howard County Schools gives $81 million contract to ‘green’ bus company that uses diesel buses

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Howard County, Md. — Howard County public schools is facing criticism for awarding a contract worth $81 million to a bus company out of California.

The move is raising concerns among local companies who worry their school bus drivers will be forced off the road and out of a job.

“It hits pretty hard. It’s taken a lot out of us,” said Jared Defibaugh, who owns Blue Horizons, a local transportation company.

Defibaugh says his family-owned company has been driving Howard County students to and from school for 52 years. But he’s not sure if there will be a 53rd year.

“I know all the contractors have felt a lot of betrayal,” Defibaugh told Project Baltimore.

Defibaugh’s company has 50 school buses and more than 40 drivers. Last year, Blue Horizons was one of about 24 mostly local contractors covering more than 400 bus routes for Howard County Schools.

“I know these streets better than anywhere else,” said Defibaugh. “I know the people, the students, we get a lot of the same students year after year, a lot the same schools. We know the families.”

But for the upcoming school year, Howard County entered into a contract with a new bus company called Zum, based in California.

Zum was awarded a contract, worth $81 million over three years, to run 230 bus routes, about half the routes in Howard County. A press release, sent out by Zum last month, touts that the company will provide Howard County with “cleaner” transportation, saying the company is “green.”

Zum’s website says it’s “100% carbon neutral” with “electric fleets”. The website even warns how diesel buses “emit notoriously noxious exhaust.” The website reads, “More than 25 million children, and thousands of drivers, breathe this impure air on the way to and from school, which has a negative impact on health and academic performance.”

Project Baltimore went to the lot where Zum stores its buses. Dark screens over the fence limit the view. But every bus we saw on the lot, with Zum written on the side, was a diesel bus with exhaust pipes and “DEF Only” written on the fuel tank, which means Diesel Exhaust Fluid. While Project Baltimore was there, a bus pulled out, and like all the others, it was powered by diesel fuel.

“They don’t have electric busses that I’m aware of,” Defibaugh told Project Baltimore.

That is correct, but Zum told FOX45 News, it hopes to have an all-electric bus fleet in Howard County within five years.

So for now, Zum’s current diesel buses are similar to Defibaugh’s diesel buses. But Zum’s come with a larger price tag. Blue Horizons charges county taxpayers about $70,000 for a traditional bus route. Zum is charging $98,000, according to Howard County Schools.

Defibaugh says he doesn’t have any idea why the school district signed this contract.

“I really don’t,” Defibaugh said. “It really, none of it makes sense to any of us.”

So, why would Howard County Schools enter into a massive contract with Zum for diesel buses, when it’s already under contract with local bus companies that use the similar buses for less? The district will not interview with Project Baltimore to explain. Instead, Howard County Schools provided a statement.

The district confirmed the Zum buses will be diesel, but added the company takes “many actions to ensure carbon neutrality.”

As for the cost, Howard County says the Zum contract, unlike local bus companies, includes transportation for summer school, special education, athletic events, and field trips. In other words, it includes more services.

The statement went on to say there are “no longer fuel and mileage adjustments in the new contracts, which often resulted in HCPSS paying much more than the budgeted amount.”

The district said it expects to need 503 total routes this upcoming school year and has contracts to cover more bus routes just in case. But with the addition of Zum, Defibaugh worries there won’t be enough work to keep his drivers on the road.

“I think the county should rescind the contract with Zum. They have the authority to do that,” said Defibaugh. “By all my accounts, that I can tell, it’s going to cost tens of millions of dollars extra for what they’re doing now.”

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