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School Districts Skeptical of New York's Deadline for Electric Buses

New York state set a deadline that all new school bus purchases must be zero-emission vehicles by 2027, but school officials and politicians have questions about costs, charging infrastructure and weather functionality.

Two yellow electric school buses in a parking lot
(TNS) — The entire fleet transporting Barker students — all 12 buses — will be electric battery operated by October, thanks to a $4.7 million federal grant.

But other school districts see problems meeting New York State's first deadline that all new bus purchases be zero-emission vehicles by 2027.

All school buses on the road must have zero emissions by 2035.

"We're starting something that is positive, but without a lot of data to support this massive switch across the state," Grand Island Central Superintendent Brian Graham told The Buffalo News last week.

The Grand Island School Board passed a resolution in January asking the state for more flexibility in the rollout of the mandate, which allows districts to apply for a two-year extension.

"I think it's a concern across the state that the deadline is coming up and there's a lot of unanswered questions," said Assemblyman William Conrad, D-Tonawanda, a former teacher and a member of the Assembly Education and Energy committees.

"It needs to be pushed back in my mind," Conrad said about the mandate.

An effort to scrap the mandate in March was unsuccessful. State Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, proposed replacing it with a feasibility study. He called it a "commonsense step" that should be taken before any large-scale mandate.

The directive will help the state meet goals in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act to drastically reduce greenhouse gases, its advocates say, and be healthier for students.

Educators don't quibble with transporting students in buses that don't spew harmful tailpipe emissions.

Diesel buses emit toxic fumes linked to asthma and cancer. The American Lung Association in New York State said the transition to zero-emission vehicles in New York would generate $68.2 billion in public health benefits and result in up to 6,200 avoided deaths and 159,000 avoided asthma attacks.


The main concern with the mandate, included in the 2022-23 state budget, is economic. Electric buses cost two to three times more than diesel- or gasoline-powered buses.

A large diesel school bus runs about $165,000, while a comparable electric vehicle could cost $400,000 to $460,000, Graham said. He estimated full replacement of Grand Island's fleet at $25 million.

"Unless you are blessed to have a tremendous amount of grant money, the taxpayers locally will have to approve a purchase like that," he said. "I think that is a lot to ask the community."

Voters in many districts will be asked later this month to approve propositions to purchase buses. In most years, bus purchases are routinely approved, but if they carry a big price tag with higher taxes, residents could turn them down.

There is some help for districts, however: $500 million was set aside in the 2022 Environmental Bond Act to help fund the buses and new infrastructure, such as charging stations.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency also has a Clean School Bus Program Grant competition.

New York State Energy Research and Development Authority developed an electric school bus roadmap for school districts. It suggests a "gradual approach for school districts at first, starting with the electrification of more feasible bus routes and leveraging overnight charging opportunities, then ramping up their efforts once school buses reach cost parity and more charging infrastructure is established."

Barker obtained a grant from the EPA for its contractor, Student Transportation of America, to purchase the buses and install charging stations at the bus garage.

Superintendent Jacob L. Reimer said the nine in-district bus runs will use the electric vehicles. The routes are 60 miles to 80 miles long, he said, while the battery charge is expected be good for 110 miles per charge. For longer out-of-district trips, such as taking students to sporting events, he said diesel buses will be used.


Eileen Hahn started driving Lake Shore Central buses this school year. She said the electric buses, which look like the diesel ones from the outside, have better pickup than diesel coaches, some of the buttons are different, and the buses are quieter.

"It's extremely quiet, which I think also helps the children to be quiet because they can talk, rather than yell to each other," she said.

Superintendents also wonder if the charge is affected by cold weather. There are concerns about the weight of the buses impacting roads and bridges.

Some of the questions can be answered by Perry Oddi at Lake Shore in Evans, who has fielded calls from a number of superintendents and heads of transportation during the past two years.

Lake Shore bought its first electric school bus in 2022.

"It's been performing very well for us," said Oddi, the transportation supervisor. "It is very reliable and it's consistent."

The district got its second electric battery-operated bus in 2023.

"That vehicle has outperformed our expectations," he said.

The district expected the bus to travel 125 miles before needing a charge, and it goes farther than that. On the coldest day during the winter, 9 degrees, there was a drop in efficiency of less than 3 percent, Oddi said.

Electricity is about two-thirds the cost of fuel for a diesel vehicle and maintenance is about one-third the cost, Oddi said.

The frame and suspension are the same, but electric buses have two large battery packs, instead of a fuel tank and engine. The bus is about 1,250 pounds heavier than the traditional diesel, which weighs 19,500 pounds, Oddi said.

District staff has educated parents and children on the new buses, and invited first responders from the 13 towns in Erie, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties where electric buses transport children for training, about how to respond to an emergency with an electric bus.

Many districts are doing studies on the costs and electrical availability. Lake Shore installed one transformer for its two charging stations. The district won a $7.9 million grant to acquire 20 more electric buses, and will install three additional transformers, Oddi said.

"Having the actual capacity to provide electricity to charge is one of the bigger hurdles out there that is quite costly," said Conrad, the assemblyman.

Charging stations could cost up to $100,000 for a fast charge and from $5,000 to $15,000 for a slower charge.

"2027 is right around the corner," he said. "It's going to come here faster than we think."

©2024 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.