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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington school districts are poised to start swapping out their diesel buses for electric under new law

Bid farewell to the familiar rumble of a school bus engine and the subtle aroma of diesel in the air and say hello to a fleet of clean and quiet zero-emission buses.

Making progress on his goal to significantly reduce carbon emissions across Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill in late March that will update grants and require school districts to begin the transition from diesel to electric buses.

The timeline and total price tag that comes with this new law are not concrete, though Washington has secured federal and state funding for the bus switch. Only 76 out of the state’s more than 10,400 school buses are electric, leaving the vast majority awaiting the transition.

“I understand the anxiety about this big change, but we just can’t wait any longer. Our children’s future depends on it,” said Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, the bill’s prime sponsor.

Diesel fumes disproportionately affect children, who breathe 50% more air per pound than adults. Studies indicate that diesel fumes inside a school bus can be 4 to 12 times higher than outside levels, and exposure to diesel exhaust increases the risk of asthma, respiratory illness and cancer, according to the Department of Ecology.

Supporters of the legislation said electric buses can also contribute to students’ improved mental health.

“We’ve heard from school bus drivers about the mental health benefits they’ve seen, how kids are calmer and more relaxed because they don’t have to shout over diesel engines,” Anna Lising, senior climate advisor for the governor’s office, said at a public hearing.

The new law requires Ecology to financially help schools swap their fossil-fueled bus fleets to zero-emission buses through a grant program. They must first provide grants to schools using buses manufactured before 2007 and districts in highly polluted areas.

The original bill required school districts to exclusively purchase zero-emission buses by 2027, but an amendment took away that deadline as school districts voiced concern over how fast it was approaching.

“The timelines that were in the original bill would have been massively impactful to school systems in the state that are already facing a significant number of financial challenges,” Mead Superintendent Travis Hanson said.

Instead, districts must begin transitioning to electric buses when the costs of purchasing, fueling and maintaining them, including charging infrastructure, becomes equal to or lower than diesel bus prices.

The price of an electric school bus ranges from around $300,000 on the low end to $428,000, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Gas or diesel-run buses fall within the $100,000 to $150,000 range.

OSPI must also survey the state’s 295 school districts on how to shift toward implementing zero-emission buses under the new law.

Those concerned with the change pointed out how electric buses can only travel so far with a singular charge, making things tricky for districts with longer bus routes.

The average range for a small electric school bus is 45 to 55 miles, and the average range for a larger bus is 70 to 90 miles, said Katy Payne, OSPI executive director for communications. She added that buses traveling in cold weather or climbing up hills also depletes the charge.

Hanson said the electric bus mileage range would cover all of their district’s routes, but he has concerns about the battery charge during student travel to athletic events or field trips across the state.

“We need to ensure that if we’re going to Colville or Moses Lake or even going to Seattle, we want to make sure that the destination provides us with the ability to recharge and not only get kids to their destination, but to get them home as well,” he said.

Mechanics who know how to work on electric buses are also in short supply, opponents said.

The Mead School District has over 100 buses for their 80 bus routes, but only five mechanics, “none of whom have had their hands on an electrified bus,” Hanson said.

“We are certainly looking forward to dipping our toes in the water and getting more familiar with the technology, but we just have so many unanswered questions,” he said.

Lawmakers allocated nearly $40 million in this year’s supplemental transportation budget for zero-emission grant programs, with almost $16 million dedicated to supporting the transition to electric school buses, via Climate Commitment Act dollars.

In early January, Sen. Patty Murray earmarked nearly $14.9 million for 20 school districts across the state to swap their diesel-powered buses with low- and zero-emission models. The funding comes from her Clean School Bus Act and is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Of those districts, eight in the Spokane area will receive funds to assist in the replacement of their diesel buses.

  • Central Valley School District – Five buses
  • West Valley School District – Three buses
  • Mead School District – Two buses
  • Reardan-Edwall and Tekoa School Districts – Two buses each
  • Pullman, Chewelah and Republic School Districts – One bus each

Ecology also recently closed a $14 million grant for the replacement of diesel buses with zero-emission school buses. Awardees are expected to be notified by April 30.

Hanson said Mead is in the process of finalizing the paperwork for its two new electric buses, and he hopes they will be ready for the 2024-2025 school year. He sees the EPA grant as an opportunity to learn about the reliability and range of electric buses before the district begins to transition its entire fleet.

“We’re looking forward to beginning that process into building a knowledge base that allows us to make really good decisions and help us inform policy,” he said.

Hanson also hopes to use the state Ecology grant program to reduce the cost of the district’s two new buses, as the EPA grant covers only a portion of the electric bus expense.

Last year, Spokane Public Schools partnered with Zum to transition its bus fleets for the first time in 15 years. Zum provides 100% carbon-neutral transportation for pupils, meaning the vehicles do not contribute to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, though they’re not the same as electric buses. The company plans to have an all-electric fleet by 2027.