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Maryland Invests in Electric Buses to Reduce Diesel Emissions

The state Department of Environment and Department of Transportation will use the money from their settlement with Volkswagen and Audi to begin funding EV charging stations and replacing diesel buses with electric.

(TNS) — Hearing widespread support for electric buses, the Maryland Department of the Environment and other state agencies announced this month an expanded pool of money for electric infrastructure in its settlement with Volkswagen.

Maryland was awarded $75.7 million in a settlement with Volkswagen AG, Audi AG and Volkswagen Group of America after it was discovered the company used “defeat devices” in two types of diesel-engine cars, which allowed them to pass laboratory inspections while actually emitting higher amounts of pollution. An estimated 500,000 of the cars were sold nationwide and approximately 16,000 were delivered to Maryland.

The state finalized a plan this month to spend the settlement money on clean infrastructure and to reduce air pollution.

“Early on, we knew we would take full advantage of the electric vehicle opportunities,” said Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles in a phone interview on Friday.

The Maryland Energy Administration, Department of the Environment and Department of Transportation collaborated on the spending plan, which will allocate $11.3 million to improve electric vehicle charging infrastructure, $5.5 million to replace diesel transit buses with all-electric alternatives and $4.6 million to specifically replace school buses and begin a state electric school bus pilot.

The pot of money for electric school buses grew by $600,000 from when the state released its original plan in August 2018, in part due to public support, Grumbles said.

The Maryland League of Conservation Voters was vocal through its Chispa campaign to increase the amount of money dedicated to electric school buses. Advocates attended the state’s public sessions — including the one in the city of Frederick — and organized a letter writing campaign, said Director of Chispa Maryland Ramon Palencia-Calvo.

While funding for an electric school bus pilot was welcome, it was not nearly as much as what the campaign would have liked to have seen.

“That was a small victory, but at the end of the day, we do think it’s a missed opportunity on how to spend the $75 million for Maryland,” Palencia-Calvo said on Friday.

The campaign advocated for all the settlement money to be used to transition the state to electric school buses to reduce childhood exposure to air pollution — particularly, in low-income areas and communities of color, who are statistically more likely to be effected by poor air quality.

The issue is personal to Palencia-Calvo, who remembers being taken to the hospital during his first asthma attack as a young child. He manages his chronic breathing condition with an inhaler, but he is concerned about the thousands of school-age children who ride diesel school buses every day in the state.

When parents send their child to the bus, they think they’re safe, but really they’re breathing in fumes, Palencia-Calvo said.

Frederick County Public Schools currently has no electric school buses in its fleet, however, it continues to replace its diesel buses with improved exhaust technology that burns harmful particulates before it can be released into the air, said Fred Punturiero, director of transportation for FCPS.

The school system has been slow to move to an alternative fuel because of several logistical concerns.

The budget allows the school system to buy and replace 30 school buses a year, which costs approximately $2.9 million annually. An electric school bus costs roughly $90,000 more than a standard diesel bus, and the state grants offered through the Volkswagen settlement only cover the difference, Punturiero said.

There is also concerns with range. A diesel bus can travel 700 miles on a tank of fuel, while an electric bus can travel 100 miles on a charge, he said. Currently, the school system could not send an electric bus on an out-of-county field trip or on some of its regular routes, which could be 50-miles just in a morning.

Still, FCPS is “strongly considering” the electric school bus program, Punturiero said.

“Currently, at this time, we are reviewing the grants and we’ll make a determination before the deadline,” Punturiero said on Friday.

Air pollution is of great concern following the Volkswagen settlement, because of the type and amount of emissions the cars emitted.

The Maryland Department of the Environment estimates Volkswagen’s cars equipped with “defeat devices” emitted up to 40 times the amount of nitrogen oxide — a precursor to the air pollutant smog — allowed by federal standards during normal operation.

At ground-level, nitrogen oxides can cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and aggravate asthma. It wasn’t until 2015 that all of Maryland met federal air quality standards for smog, according to the department of the environment. Those standards have since become stricter, and some of Maryland’s communities are not in attainment.

The plan notes it funding priority will be for projects that have long-term nitrogen oxides emission reductions as well as those that help “highly affected communities” in areas of the state that have historically and currently have air pollution above safe federal levels.

“The public health component is a motivating factor for all of us. Reducing emissions — diesel emissions, in particular — is critical,” Grumbles said.

The diesel Volkswagen vehicles may have emitted up to 1,730 tons of excess nitrogen oxide into Maryland’s air, which is equal to having added 375,000 vehicles to the road each day, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Maryland is aiming to reduce harmful emissions of nitrogen oxides by at least as much as was added by Volkswagen’s vehicles. The actual reduction in emissions, however, will not be known until all the projects have been selected.

Knowing there is interest in electric school buses, the state has made clear that counties and local governments may use funding to purchase electric school buses as well.

When the plan was first released in August 2018, the Frederick County government was interested in replacing seven of its public TransIT buses with all-electric alternatives. The buses cost approximately $530,000 each and are outside the county’s budgetary ability to replace.

Frederick County may get some help with the total pool of money for counties and local governments increasing from $12 million to $15.6 million.

The remaining settlement money has been divided between:

  • Private businesses and the federal government, which will competitively bid for $28.5 million worth of funding for in-state projects
  • State agency projects totaling $19.2 million
  • Administrative costs totaling $1 million
However, work on reducing emissions will not stop when the $75.7 million is spent.

Grumbles is also working with eight other states on the Transportation and Climate Initiative, which will study and design a program to reduce carbon emission on a regional basis. He spent Thursday and Friday in Washington, D.C. discussing ways to design a “cap” on emissions from the transportation sector.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is also pushing a clean cars bill in the General Assembly this session. As the Maryland Public Service Commission also continues to work with the state’s power utilities on investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, Grumbles said.

“2019 is shaping up to be the year of clean transportation,” Grumbles said.

©2019 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.