Colorado electric school buses grant begins roll out

The wheels on the bus still go round ‘n round, but the motor won’t go vroom, vroom, vroom.

Instead, the buses outside of Aurora School Public Schools Edna & John W. Mosley campus Tuesday whirred as they went, powered by electric motors and as displays of what state leaders hope will be the norm in the not-too-distant future.

The Aurora school district is one of the first in the state to obtain the electric buses. Now, seven of its 151 buses don’t have tailpipes. Gov. Jared Polis hopes that in the next decade, all districts join in replacing aging transports with quieter, cleaner whirs.

“We see this as an air quality issue but also an environmental justice and health issue in communities that are disproportionately impacted,” Polis said at a press conference Wednesday. “Electric buses are a solution for every kind of school district across the state. It’ll save every school money the sooner they get implemented.”

The Aurora buses were bought thanks to a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed in 2021. Polis also signed a state bill earlier this year, SB22-193, that included a $65 million grant program to help school districts transition to electric buses when they replace aging vehicles. State officials are accepting those grant applications until Aug. 19.

Polis described that program, tied with EPA grants, as changing the math for school districts when they look to replace their old vehicles. With state and federal backing, the $375,000 electric buses are competitively priced when compared to traditional diesel vehicles, especially when lower operational and maintenance costs over the long run are considered, he said.

Aurora Public Schools Chief of Staff Mark Seglem said traditional buses typically cost about half that, though recent supply chain and inflationary issues have driven those costs up. He said the district will be eager to chase more grants to help along with the transition.

He expects the buses to have about a 300-mile range, well within the routes they run. The district plans to deploy them along the longer routes they serve to maximize the miles of vehicles that don’t pour diesel emissions into the air.

The grants covered about 80% of the cost of the vehicles, with the school district picking up the remaining 20%. And while they don’t have exact figures on reduced operating costs — they are just now being deployed — Seglem expects that to pay dividends, too.

“Overall repair costs, maintenance and operations costs also go down with electric vehicles,” Seglem said. “And that’s a very important way for us to save money and put more into those classrooms behind us and those kids that we’re trying to teach.”

But the program isn’t universally backed. The bill that included the grant for electric school buses passed largely along party lines in the Democrat-controlled state legislature. House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, called the buses “an answer in search of a problem,” and emblematic of broader political divisions.

He called the rollout premature considering the state of the electric grid and questioned if there would be trade-offs from putting more strain on it by charging the vehicles. He also questioned how long, rural and mountainous roads would test the batteries, especially in cold winters. (Polis, in his remarks, said electric school buses in Alaska operate without issue in negative 40-degree winters and that he had no concerns about them in Colorado’s coldest mornings.)

McKean said the electric buses may well be suited for Front Range metros, but a statewide push represents a one-size-fits-all approach criticized by Republicans in the legislature. If they’re not as well suited to rural areas, the push to an all-electric fleet in the state will affect them disproportionately, he said.

These may be laudable goals, McKean said, but he questions the practicality of it — something he said divides the parties.

“(In the legislature) it’s been a contest between ideology and practicality,” McKean said. “And in the past several years, the ideological goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and all these other things have won out over what the practical solution might be. As Republicans, I think we’re focused on the practicality of things.”

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