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The Case for Electric School Buses

By Stephanie Thomas – Quorum Editor & J.D. Candidate, Class of 2019, at N.Y.U. School of Law.

Back in 2007, New York City set ambitious air quality goals to reduce vehicle emissions, promote the use of new technologies and fuels, and achieve the cleanest air quality of any large U.S. city. Driving electric vehicles is one way to work toward these goals, and the city can and should take the lead by transitioning its public service vehicles to all-electric fleets. In fact, it should go beyond existing plans to transition city-owned vehicles by instead pursuing an electric school bus plan to take advantage of significant cost, health, and environmental benefits. The city spends $1.2 billion per year on student busing contracts, driving 150,000 children to and from school on approximately 9,000 buses with diesel engines. The New York City Council can enact legislation requiring all government school bus contractors to transition to electric engines, much like they set standards for diesel engines. A successful policy for buses can lay the groundwork for electrification of additional contracted services, including garbage and recycling collection and street sweeping.

Electric school buses provide a host of potential benefits to the quality of service, health, environment, and utility infrastructure. Meanwhile, diesel bus engines emit exhaust, which children breathe in while riding the bus and sitting in traffic. They have numerous negative health effects, including increased risk of cancer and respiratory symptoms, which are exacerbated in school-aged children because their lungs are still developing and their growth, inhalation, and activity rates make them more susceptible to air pollution. Exhaust also aggravates asthma, a condition which almost 70,000 New York City public school children (ages 5-14) had been diagnosed with by 2014, with higher rates in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Aggravated asthma symptoms can lead to emergency rooms visits, hospitalizations, and missed school days, burdening our healthcare system, families’ medical costs, and children’s learning potential. Electric engines eliminate diesel exhaust harms and would benefit all residents, beyond those on the bus.

Additionally, while electric engines have high upfront costs, they have lower lifetime maintenance and labor costs than comparable diesel engines, and they eliminate fuel expenses. Electric drive reduces required brake maintenance, replacement, and lubricant. It is not subject to the volatility of changes in fuel prices and will reduce the city’s dependence on fossil fuels. Charging can be done at off-peak hours, when the electric vehicle charging rate is significantly cheaper, to further reduce costs below that of diesel. Moreover, the immense batteries provide an opportunity to strengthen the electric utility grid during peak-demand times. Emerging vehicle-to-grid technology and regulatory measures would allow buses to sell back power when they are not in use during high demand times – think hot summer days – which could be used to offset school district utility bills.

Electric engine technology is still emerging, so any policy should be preceded by the appropriate cost studies and pilot programs. Battery technology is improving to allow for longer distance travel, but upfront investment costs are still high, with a new electric school bus costing a district tens of thousands of dollars more than a diesel bus. The city should seek out grants and state subsidies to defray upfront costs for contractors, specifically a portion of the $127.7 million in Volkswagen settlement funds awarded to New York, which Governor Cuomo has designated for clean transportation, including school buses.

Pending City Council Legislation & Policy Considerations

Councilmember Daniel Dromm introduced a bill in February of this year that would phase out the use of diesel buses based on bus age limitations. Introduction 455 requires the oldest school buses to be replaced, beginning in 2020, with newer models using compressed natural gas (“CNG,” a natural gas fuel alternative), hybrid, or electric engines after ten years, and eventually requiring all buses to transition to electric. This phase-out model is practical given ongoing improvements to battery technology and high upfront costs, and it allows fleet owners to spread out costs over time. The alternative fuel CNG or hybrid options provide a moderate reduction in emissions and particulate levels, making them a feasible midway point.

In general, a legislative solution is superior to a city agency, the Office of Pupil Transportation under the Department of Education, tackling this problem on itself through its contract awarding process (i.e., specifying an electric engine requirement without any legislative mandate to do so). The transition should be a coordinated effort that captures the greatest reduction in harmful emissions in a cost-efficient way. First, City Council legislation is a more transparent way to proceed. Contractors should have fair notice of this policy in order to have ample opportunity to establish a financial plan. Second, bus contracts are bid out in infrequent batches, and any given year might not result in the oldest, most-polluting buses leaving the road first as it would be dependent on the particular contractors’ vehicles, not the system at large. Third, the routes bid out for that year might not align with an efficient installation of charging infrastructure or such infrastructure may need to be procured through an entirely separate contract process. Finally, a coordinated legislative plan can be better implemented with parallel funding programs, such as grants or subsidies, that avoids ad hoc assignment.

While the proposed bill is strong start, it does not address the charging infrastructure needed in contractors’ bus depots, at schools, and perhaps in centralized “hubs” for more convenient mid-day charging. The city should follow ongoing results from the MTA’s all-electric bus pilot program, which began this past January and may provide insight as to where charging stations can and should be, and how batteries are holding up in the city’s traffic and weather. The city will need to conduct battery testing throughout the year to assess route distance capabilities in seasonal weather, in particular for onboard heating or cooling systems. Unlike MTA buses, school buses are operated by numerous contractors so any charging infrastructure at schools or at shared hubs must be compatible with the different electric bus brands that each contractor may choose to use. The city could consider partnering with the MTA to share hub charging stations and costs, particularly if the two systems have periods of opposite demand throughout the day. Vehicle-to-grid technology should also be explored in order to further reduce costs, which will implicate state utility regulations and may require legislative changes.

Overall, Introduction 455 is just one piece of a broader policy proposal for which the city needs to find the right balance between emerging technology and costs, developing infrastructure, and operating effectively within a complicated school busing system that can change from year to year. But it is an important piece that deserves debate and stakeholder input, especially at a time where a new state funding source might be available to the city.