Making the case for electric school buses

By Chuck Laszewski

As hard as it is to believe, school bus companies and school districts are hesitating to take free money to improve the buses that transport our children to school.

Mn350, an organization dedicated to fighting climate change, is leading the charge to get as many school districts throughout Minnesota to apply for the federal grants that would pay for all, or most, of the cost of replacing dirty diesel buses with clean, quiet electric school buses.

The money comes from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that besides providing money for roads, bridges, rails and airports also provided $5 billion over five years for electric school buses. President Joe Biden signed the bill in November.

By March, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which was assigned to administer the electric bus grants, was putting out its rules and scheduling webinars for school districts and interested parties to learn how to get that money.

St. Paul was the only school district in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area designated as a priority district, meaning that 100 percent of the cost of the new buses, as well as the electric charging stations, would be paid for by the grants. To its credit, the St. Paul School District recognized a good deal when officials saw it and immediately applied for 25 electric buses. The deadline for 2022 applications was last month and the district probably already has heard how many buses it will receive.

Other districts were more reluctant. Some, like the Roseville School District, said they couldn’t apply because they did not own the buses but contracted with a private company. Activists from Mn350 went to the last school board meeting of the school year and informed them that the EPA knew many districts were in that situation and allowed the district and its transportation company to submit a joint application.

It seemed the districts and the public needed to know more about the electric school buses and the free money.

On July 7, Mn350 organized the Bus Back Better Festival at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis. It was led by high school students. There was screen printing, a bus door photo booth, ice cream and best of all, two electric school buses and visitors could learn about how the buses worked.

Before the event ended, dozens of people had climbed aboard for a ride around the neighborhood. Besides interested parents and children, school board members and school administrators took advantage of the hands-on demonstration.

The research has been clear for decades: The air inside diesel school buses is dirtier than the air outside the bus. The diesel pollution that seeps into the bus contains cancer causing substances. It can also cause serious cardiovascular, respiratory and cognitive health issues among our children.

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that reducing exposure to diesel bus pollution can meaningfully improve students’ test scores. It’s nice when the research confirms what any of us who rode on stinky diesel buses long suspected. And ridding ourselves of diesel buses also brings a significant cut in carbon dioxide emissions.

For you readers in the St. Paul School District, send a note of thanks to the board and administration for taking advantage of the federal money and urge them to continue to add to their electric school bus fleet. For those of you in the Roseville School District, the administration found excuses not to apply for this first round. Press them to apply for grants in the second round early next year. 

Chuck Laszewski lives in Falcon Heights and is a former environmental reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He is a volunteer with Mn350.

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