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New York Republicans Push Back Against Electric Bus Mandate

New York's Republican state legislators are roundly criticizing a state mandate that was enacted in 2022, requiring school districts to transition to electric school buses in the next four years.

New York State Assembly Chamber
(TNS) — New York's Republican state legislators are roundly criticizing a state mandate enacted in 2022 that requires school districts to transition to electric school buses in the next four years, and on Monday outlined a plan to delay the requirement until other state-run agencies are required to make their own transitions.

In a press conference in the Capitol on Monday, a group of Republican Assembly members and senators stood to support a bill, introduced by Sen. George M. Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, that would end the school bus transition mandate and push the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to study the utility of electric school buses.

School districts have been directed to purchase only new electric buses starting in 2027, with their full fleets transitioned by 2035.

"It's time to pump the brakes on this," Borrello said Monday.

That's got the support of the north country's Republican legislators, including Assemblyman Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, and Sen. Daniel G. Stec, R-Queensbury.

Sen. Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, who represents the western part of the north country, the Adirondacks and the Mohawk Valley, has not been present at the Capitol as he is deployed to Kuwait with the U.S. armed forces, but last December Walczyk joined a Republican letter on the topic led by Borrello, calling on Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul to drop the mandate or provide for the entire cost of the transition with state funds.

Upstate Republicans and some school transportation directors have expressed concerns over the plan to fully transition to electric buses so early in the wider electric vehicle transition.

They cite costs, with the average electric bus costing more than $400,000 compared to about $150,000 per gas or diesel bus.

Infrastructure to support those buses, including maintenance equipment to work on the heavier vehicles and technicians who can work on the battery and electric motors, is expected to cost billions statewide.

Some voters have expressed an unwillingness to foot the bill. In Lisbon last year, voters rejected a $16 million capital improvement project that would have built a transportation maintenance facility and an indoor bus garage, readying the district for the mandate to transition to electric buses. The pitch failed 146 votes to 156.

That's left the district unprepared to store or repair the electric buses they'll have to start buying by 2027. Electric buses must be stored inside, to facilitate charging and to protect their batteries from sitting idle in extreme cold, which can permanently damage them.

Gray, who represents Lisbon, St. Lawrence County, in the state legislature, said it's unclear what path forward exists for the Lisbon Central School District now — they can't ask voters to vote on the same or a significantly similar project for years, but they also have to start buying electric buses in a matter of years.

"They don't really have any options," he said.

Gray was present at a hearing where this topic came up last week, as part of the ongoing state budget hearing schedule. There, he asked NYSERDA President Doreen M. Harris why the state was mandating the schools go forward with all-electric vehicles before the state's own agencies make their own transition.

State agencies must start buying only electric vehicles in 2035, when the districts are expected to have already fully transitioned.

"I specifically asked Doreen Harris about why there's no parity there, and she didn't have a great answer," Gray said. "That's the question in my mind. We should be putting everything on a level playing field here, but we aren't. We're expecting too much."

Assemblyman Blankenbush said this call for districts to spend more local tax dollars on electrification comes at an awful time, when Hochul is pitching a plan that would take thousands of dollars out of state aid totals for rural and small districts, which are the same districts facing the highest hurdles to effectively transition to electric buses.

"New York Democrats expect school districts to cough up millions in the next three years to invest in their electrification dystopia," he said. "The fast rate of electrification is severely unrealistic, especially when schools are receiving less aid in executive budgets."

The Republicans also cite concerns over range, with current models of electric buses coming with only 150 miles per charge, much less in cold or below-freezing weather. That complicates routing plans for rural districts, and also limits how any district can use their own buses to travel longer distances for field trips or sporting events.

"Studies show electric buses have an average range of about 150 miles at 70 degrees," Blankenbush said. "When it's 20 (degrees), the range is 85-90 miles. For context, I was recently speaking with the superintendent at the Massena School District and each of their buses drives 70 miles per day. For the Saranac Lake School District, the largest school district geographically speaking, their fleet of 16 buses drive an average of 100 miles each day. In north country communities like Massena and Potsdam, the average January temperatures are a high of 25 and a low of 5."

They've also expressed concerns that the transition is being pushed forward without a complete understanding of how it will all work, or a clear plan to fund the transition. The state's energy research agency, NYSERDA, has not completed a wide study on the use of electric buses for school transportation. That study is underway, pulling information from the Massena Central School District and a handful of other districts across the state.

The state budget last year allocated $500 million in state funding to cover costs with grants — the Republican lawmakers said that would not even cover the costs of buying one bus for each of the more than 800 school districts in the state.

State officials have said they anticipate battery-powered buses will reach cost-parity with gas-powered buses by 2027, when districts must start buying the electric versions. They've said federal funding exists for the transition, and proponents of the transition have said it's imperative that government take the steps it can, when it can, to reduce carbon emissions and cut down on fossil fuel use to avoid worsening the growing climate crisis.

The World Resources Institute, a research nonprofit that has led advocacy on climate change-fighting issues, advocated heavily for electrification of school bus fleets in New York and celebrated the 2022 decision to mandate the transition start by 2027. The WRI also offers assistance to districts in transitioning to electric transportation.

Sue Gander, director of the WRI's electric school bus initiative, said many of the concerns about electric bus implementation can be answered, and while the technology is relatively new to the market, it's well positioned to become the leading transportation method for schools as more districts adopt the technology.

"We're excited we can address the emissions concerns and the health concerns with technology that is out there on the road," Gander said. "It is still emerging, but improvements are being made and will be made year after year, so this is a moment in time where it does really make sense."

To address range issues, Gander said there are a variety of battery and motor options that can provide up to 200 miles per charge, perhaps more, and districts should be doing some planning to decide which routes to run with the electric vehicles in the first years, and which to save for a later transition with more developed technology.

While districts must start buying electric buses in 2027, they're not expected to stop using their gas or diesel buses until 2035.

As for the effect of temperature, Gander said pre-heating batteries and keeping them warm can reduce range loss, and there are options like a short charging stop on a route that could help districts manage their bus routes efficiently. While the Republican lawmakers cited anecdotes about Tesla electric vehicles failing in the Midwest during severe cold weather conditions last week, Gander said there are plenty of examples of electric school buses handling those temperatures quite well.

"We've seen some great stories coming out of that weather," she said.

As for the costs, Gander said the initial startup costs do need significant public support, and pointed to a number of federal programs, including one whose details are not yet announced, that can help cover early adoption costs.

As more districts purchase electric buses, their costs are expected to decrease and technological development may soon make them even more efficient and affordable. Electric buses also provide cost savings compared to diesel or gas buses too.

"We know that once the buses are purchased, there's up to $100,000 saving over the lifetime of that bus," Gander said. "So, getting that first cost addressed is important at this moment in time, but over time there will be savings and things won't be as expensive as they are today."

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