Dems Pitch $25B Bill to Transition to Electric School Buses

School buses are the nation’s largest form of mass transportation, and almost all of them are diesel. Lawmakers say going electric would improve public health, reduce greenhouse gases and create jobs.

Vice President Kamala Harris tours Thomas Built Buses in High Point, N.C., on Monday. Harris is joined by EPA Administrator Michael Regan, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., and Leslie Kilgore, vice president of engineering. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Before the Covid-19 pandemic, about 25 million students around the nation were bussed to school each day in over 500,000 predominantly diesel school buses.  

Now, as students head back to school, legislators are looking to transition the massive fleet — which makes up 90% of the nation’s buses — to zero-emission buses. 

Four Democratic lawmakers introduced the bicameral legislation on Wednesday, which would authorize $25 billion over the next 10 years to provide grants to replace the buses, lining up nicely with the goals of President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, which aims to tackle climate change while fixing the nation’s infrastructure, 

“School buses are the nation’s largest form of mass transportation and the sector emitting the highest level of greenhouse gases in our country,” Representative Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement. 

Hayes said this is the first step in addressing air pollution that disproportionately affects non-white and poorer communities, and 40% of the funding would be devoted to replacing school buses in these underserved communities. 

Advocates say that the bill would improve public health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs. 

“I know firsthand how outdated diesel school buses expose our young people to harmful pollution,” said Senator Alex Padilla of California, another co-sponsor. “Children in working-class communities — like the one I grew up in — face higher rates of asthma and respiratory issues, which have a direct impact on their ability to learn.”

Hayes and Padilla are joined by Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Representative Tony Cárdenas of California in co-sponsoring the Clean Commute for Kids Act.

The funding would cover a significant portion of the cost for school districts to purchase electric vehicles, build charging infrastructure and provide workforce training. It would also direct the Environmental Protection Agency to develop an outreach program to assist school districts in the transition. 

Electric school buses cost about $300,000, batteries are around $180,000 and charging infrastructure is around $5,000 to $10,000. Estimates from Clean Energy Works and Jobs to Move America say that $25 billion could replace half of the nation’s buses. 

But, because of the large scaling up of the industry, the prices of buses would come down and the remaining 50% of buses would cost less to replace, said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. All the major school bus manufacturers — Thomas, Blue Bird, IC Bus and Lion — already have at least one model of electric school bus, and several states have already begun the transition to electric buses. Vice President Kamala Harris toured the Thomas Built Buses plant in High Point, North Carolina, on Monday.

The legislation will likely face an uphill battle as it needs 60 Senate votes to pass as a standalone bill. Democrats and Republicans each control 50 seats, with Harris as the tie-breaking vote.

But Mudd says that she expects that funding will come in one way or another, as there have been several variations of this bill already, and the legislation could be tacked onto Biden’s infrastructure package. 

“The vice president, when she was a senator, introduced the first bill to transition to electric school buses, so she’s clearly committed,” Mudd said. “And the president made clear part of his plans. There’s seemingly a lot of interest right now.” 

The bill has also earned support from a wide array of groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, CALSTART, EarthJustice, Edison Electric Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law & Policy Center, GreenLatinos, League of Conservation Voters, Chispa, Mom’s Clean Air Force and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“We’ve seen a good amount of support for it right out of the gate, and like most bills, it’s more likely to move if it gets folded into a larger package,” said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund. 

“I think there is a great opportunity right now to electrify our school buses,” Gore continued. “The stars are aligned better now that they have in the past.”

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