Sen. Murray's push for electric school buses highlights Vancouver example

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May 5—Sen. Patty Murray is spreading the word about her plan to electrify the nation's fleet of public school buses by highlighting one example already out for a test-drive in Clark County.

Last year, Vancouver Public Schools acquired three electric school buses through a $960,000 grant program from the Washington State Department of Ecology. Murray's Clean Bus School Act would take that idea nationwide, establishing a $1 billion grant program over the next five years.

"It is so important we make a federal investment in those clean school buses," Murray said. "I can think of no better time to talk about how critical it is that we finally make an investment in clean energy."

Murray, a Democrat, and Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, D-Nev., reintroduced the legislation in February in conjunction with Reps. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Tony Cardenas, D-Calif.

She met virtually with Vancouver Public Schools Associate Superintendent Brett Blechschmidt for a discussion about the proposal Tuesday afternoon. They were also joined by representatives from Tacoma Public Utilities, Franklin Pierce Public Schools and environmental advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force.

"We see just massive, long term benefits from this program, and we're obviously interested in expanding it," Blechschmidt said.

Under the proposed legislation, school districts across the country could apply for grants of up to $2 million to convert their fleet of diesel-powered buses to electric buses. The grant program's criteria would prioritize low-income districts and communities of color.

The initial cost of that transition is usually too much to bear alone for most districts — the sticker price of an electric bus is just shy of $400,000, Blechschmidt said, compared with around $140,000 for a diesel one.

But it's cost-effective in the long run, he added, estimating that each bus will save the district between $5,000 and $10,000 per year.

"It's often too expensive up front for many school districts to purchase these clean buses," said Murray, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee.

There are both environmental and health benefits for phasing out diesel engines. Around 500,000 school buses are on the road nationwide, traversing about 3 billion miles per year.

For students and drivers, the air quality inside a school bus cabin can pose a hazard. That risk is multiplied for riders with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

"Experts now know the air inside school buses is so bad that the air inside a school bus cabin is five to 10 times more polluted than the community around them," Murray said.

Portions of the Clean Bus School Act were adopted into President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan, which aims to transition 20 percent of the nation's school bus fleet to electric buses.

An earlier version of the legislation was introduced in 2019 by then-Sen. Kamala Harris, who's now the vice president and often the deciding partisan vote in an evenly split Senate.

"As we invest in clean energy, we want to ensure equity and environmental justice are a central part of our efforts," Murray said. "This legislation is good for the health of our students, for the economy and for our climate, and really it's long overdue."