A few hundred Sonoma students hopped aboard new, larger, safer school buses this winter, thanks to a sizeable grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The four new buses replaced four others that are more than 25 years old, taking their place in February on routes through Sonoma Valley.

The new Blue Bird buses are the first in the Valley to have seat belts as well as higher seats, which are safer for passengers. In addition, the buses feature improved exterior lighting, which makes it safer for children to exit in the darker winter months. There are also roof emergency exits as well as better rollover protection for passengers.

Just in time for the hot weather, the new buses are cooler, as they have air conditioning as well as well as tinted glass and white roofs. District bus drivers report that the new buses are quieter, and that they provide greater visibility for drivers with help from some much-needed window defrosters.

The grant covered the costs of four buses – three big ones and one smaller one for special-needs students. The three big buses can hold up to 78 passengers instead of 56.

The smaller bus, manufactured by Thomas Built, holds 24 passengers and two wheelchairs. All four are clean-diesel powered.

What does a new bus cost? District transportation manager John Bartolome estimates that the retired 1987 buses cost $15,000 when they were new. At the time, they were only intended to last 10 years. It is hoped that the new $165,000 buses will each last 20 years.

In total, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District now owns a fleet of 22 school buses. Its annual transportation budget runs around $1.5 million.

Between trips to and from the schools, approximately 2,000 student “rides” are logged each day, meaning that between a quarter and a third of Sonoma K-12 students ride a bus on a given day.

With 4,600 students in the district and two trips a day, that’s 9,200 possible “riders.”

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District provides funding through the Lower-Emission School Bus Program (LESBP) to reduce the exposure of school children to particulate matter and the emissions of smog-causing pollutants.

Funds are provided to replace model year 1993 and older school buses and to install emission-control devices on newer buses.

These funds come from a $2 surcharge on DMV motor vehicle registrations throughout the nine-county Bay Area.