Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

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STN speaks with the environmental advocate on alternative choices and what the feds can do to help

His name is synonymous with leadership and forging a new path to create a better tomorrow. His father and uncles made great strides for change in this country and left a lasting impression on our society. But Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. did not follow the same course as many in his clan. Instead, he forged his own trail, one that began with a youth filled with outdoor adventures and that eventually led to the position of chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper, a environmental watchdog organization that brings lawsuits against companies that knowingly pollute rivers and waterways.

Kennedy is constantly on the move, whether traveling the country for his numerous speaking engagements or co-hosting “Ring of Fire,” a national radio show. He also serves as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is a clinical professor at Pace University and acts as supervising attorney for the Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains, N.Y.

Although his battlefront is the environment, he sees how it ties to everything and everyone. This understanding goes beyond political affiliation and into the real issue — what we can do, together, to fix the damage that has been done and prevent further harm.

“It’s about consideration, courtesy, morality and a sense of community,” said Kennedy, who will be delivering one of the keynote speeches at this year’s STN 15th Annual EXPO. “That’s where we should all be.”

As someone who is intimately aware of the political process, Kennedy see not only the need to further the already-visible green movement within the school bus industry, but the means to the end.

“I think that it’s an appropriate place for federal funding. You do everything you can to get the public policy changed,” said Kennedy, suggesting that leadership within the industry must continue and even increase efforts to call upon the federal government during lobbying days, when representatives come to the nation’s capitol to meet with senators and congressmen to demonstrate the necessity of federal monies to support change within the school bus industry.

“You try to cultivate certain legislators, hopefully one person from each party in both houses, so they can introduce the bill (to appropriate funding) from both sides.”

This of course takes money. But, any effort on behalf of the industry as a whole must be approached in both a unified and educated response, according to Kennedy, who suggested training the industry representatives on what to say when meeting with legislators.

“You can do it anytime you want. You just pick a day when all of your people come up to Washington from all over the country. Try and get them from every state, so you flood the Congress with them, so they’re in every congressional office and every senators’ office,” advised Kennedy.

On the subject of the absorption of the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program into the Diesel Emission Reduction Program, Kennedy once again stressed the need to be politically active, as the competition for the federal grants will get fiercer with school districts now vying against other transportation sectors.

The federal government could also assist school districts and school bus manufacturers with some other that money — research into more alternative fuel options, specifically, battery-powered buses.

“The big environmental cost for manufacturers is the engines they’re producing. The federal government ought to be developing prototypes for good battery-powered buses,” added Kennedy. “Everybody wants a green vehicle now, especially with the rising fuel prices.”

But for many school districts, the costs involved with many of the available “green” options seem out of reach; another reason why Kennedy feels the government needs to get more involved.

“That’s one of the things that the federal government should be doing with their national energy policy,” added Kennedy.

When breaking down the numbers involved in fuel costs at a national level, one can see how much the nation could save as a whole if there was a wide-spread move to alternative fuels.

“With school buses traveling 4.3 billion miles each year, at, let’s say, a buck a mile, if you cut that in half, you’d be saving billions of dollars.”

In the end, though, school districts have to do their own math to find the most cost-effective solution to their emission problems. “With new hybrid school buses starting at around $210,000, you have to figure out if you will make up the costs on fuel savings before spending that much. They don’t want to wait 10 years to get back their money; but if the payback time is two years, that’s pretty good. They’ve got to get a cheaper unit designed for districts. What they really ought to be looking to is developing an all-electric vehicle, because that’s where you’ll see huge savings.”

The changes that need to be made to turn the page on the current state of our environment may begin now, but it will need to be supported and nurtured in the many years to come. Kennedy, who is a father to two sons, both of whom have asthma, understands how the current generation has to set a good example for the future.

“I try to teach my kids the environmental epic by trying to live it in my own home. It’s like teaching a kid to not throw his gum wrapper on the street.”

Kennedy will address attendees of the 15th Annual STN EXPO during the Monday morning breakfast on July 28.

Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.