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Grant Funding Helps New York Schools Prepare for Bus Mandate

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is awarding funds through an incentive program, and the EPA's Clean School Bus Grant program has earmarked $5 billion to be doled out through 2026.

An electric school bus sitting in a garage
(TNS) — To help offset the herculean task New York has set before school districts, state and federal funding has started rolling in to help them upgrade to electronic busses.

Scott Whittmore, the assistant superintendent for business at the Queensbury Union Free School District, says there are multiple sources of funding schools can turn to for assistance with this initiative.

"NYSERDA has some money out, the EPA has some money out," Whittmore said. "They're really trying to incentivize schools to make this transition, which we're required to do." NYSERDA is the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The shift to EV buses is part of a push by state lawmakers to convert every school bus in New York to electric by 2035. The mandate requires that districts start transitioning their fleet from gas-powered to electric by 2027.

But with the average cost of a gas-powered school bus being around $140,000 to 150,000, versus that of an electronic bus at around $400,000 to $450,000, the move has been criticized by school officials and other local lawmakers for its financial feasibility.

"It's going to be a big budget buster for a lot of school districts," said Assembly member Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston at a BOCES legislative breakfast in January 2023.

The EPA's Clean School Bus Grant program has earmarked $5 billion in competitive federal grant funding to be doled out through 2026 for qualifying districts that apply for assistance.

This year, six Capital Region school districts were awarded money from that program. Queensbury Union Free School District will receive $800,000, and South Glens Falls Central School District will receive $2 million.

Officials from the South Glens Falls school district said the $2 million would be used to purchase 10 electric buses, four of which would be folded into its fleet for the 2024/2025 school year.

"In the last few years, we've included a 'bus line' in our general fund, so we wanted to continue that this year," explained South Glens Falls Superintendent Kristine Orr. "This year in our general fund we're doing four electric and two gas."

However, it's not just the vehicles themselves that districts need to consider when making the switch; infrastructure and electronic output upgrading is also needed for the maintenance and charging of the new EV buses. Some districts, like South Glens Falls, Orr said, are fortunate enough to be prepared for those types of upgrades.

"We have the ability to be able to do this because the infrastructure on our street near our bus garage already was capable of it," she said. "It's more of 'electronic' renovations ... obviously we need more of it."

Orr said she believes the fact that South Glens Falls is so prepared to start onboarding e-buses has made the district more attractive for grant funding. In addition to the $2 million in federal funding, the NYSERDA, through its school bus incentive program (NYSBIP) awarded $588,000 to the district, which makes the electronic bus purchases more cost effective than in previous years.

"We're going to be spending closer to $50,000 per bus because of the grants," South Glens Falls Assistant Superintendent of Business Kevin Fottrell said. "Last year we spent $719,000 on buses, this year we're going to spend $420,000 on buses."

Kyle Ganon, superintendent for Queensbury Union Free School District, said that the money laid out for the district's capital project next year included some funds for providing infrastructure upgrades to its transportation center, specifically to prepare it for the new electric fleet.

"We have the capacity to electrify eight [buses] right now," he said. "And now we're working on phase two with our architectural firm trying to maximize the grants and the monies that are available right now."

Queensbury also received $400,000 in NYSBIP funding. That, coupled with the EPA money, will be applied to purchasing four e-buses which should be integrated into the fleet by early spring of 2025, as well as two gas-powered buses.

In 2022, the Lake George Central School District passed a $13.5 million upgrade project to its transportation facility to house and maintain its new electric fleet. The district secured a $220,500 NYSBIP grant which will go toward the purchase of one electric bus in the coming school year. Representatives from the Blue Bird Corporation visited Lake George recently to showcase one of its new electric buses.

"There's no noise to hear other than we have an air compressor that runs, we have a power steering pump that runs," said Andy Raymond, transportation supervisor for the Lake George Central School District. "And they're all electronically driven."

Where the engine used to sit is now a "management system," which runs the electric motor that is located behind the rear axle. Along with zero emissions, the quieter ride also means less noise pollution, which benefits both the driver and the students.

"It is noticeably quieter on the interior," Lake George Central School District Superintendent John Luthringerr said. "It's going to help a lot, I think, when drivers are trying to interact with kids on the buses while they're driving."

With the redistribution of weight, Raymond said driving the electric buses is "a completely different animal."

"The response is immediate, breaking and acceleration," he said. "The bus still turns and handles (similarly). The acceleration is, for a school bus, unheard of."

"Yeah, it's got some pep," Luthringer added.

At around 20 percent power, a portable charger took 13 hours to fully charge the bus. But when the district upgrades its garage facilities with higher capacity chargers, that time would be drastically reduced.

"The bus does its own charging as well, it has regenerative breaking on it," Raymond said. "So, we actually added miles driving it."

Every school district in the region has begun appropriating funds in their budgets for the oncoming wave of electric upgrades needed to fulfill the state's mandate. But with school funding margins already stretched thinly, those that are able to take advantage of early state and federal assistance may just be ahead of the curve.

"It makes it feasible at the moment," Fottrell said. "What electric buses are going to cost in 10 years, the infrastructure, all of those sorts of things I don't really know."

©2024 The Post Star (Glens Falls, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.