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Baltimore schools to share in $1B in grants for electric buses

Vice President Kamala Harris, right, laughs with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, during a tour of electric school buses at Meridian High School in Falls Church, Virginia, on May 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Vice President Kamala Harris, right, laughs with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, during a tour of electric school buses May 20 at Meridian High School in Falls Church, Virginia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON — Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) and nearly 400 school districts spanning all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several tribes and U.S. territories are receiving roughly $1 billion in grants to purchase about 2,500 “clean” school buses under a new federal program.

The city of Baltimore was awarded $9.45 million to purchase 25 buses for BCPS, the only school district in Maryland to receive funds. The Biden administration is making the grants available as part of a wider effort to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles and reduce air pollution near schools and communities.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan announced the grant awards Wednesday in Seattle. The new, mostly electric school buses will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save money and better protect children’s health, they said.

“Who doesn’t love a yellow school bus?” a smiling Harris asked an invitation-only crowd at Seattle’s Lumen Field, with an electric bus behind her.

“It’s part of our experience growing up,” she added. “It’s part of a nostalgia and a memory of the excitement and joy of going to school — to be with your favorite teacher, to be with your best friends and to learn. The school bus takes us there.”

Other school districts in Maryland are also converting to electric fleets. On Tuesday, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), one of the nation’s largest school districts, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the country’s single largest deployment of electric school buses at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

During the 2021-2022 school year, MCPS installed electric infrastructure at one of its transportation depots and saw the delivery of its first 25 electric buses. This school year, another 61 buses will be delivered and electric infrastructure will be installed at three more transportation depots. The district on schedule to have 326 electric school buses in three years and an entirely electric school bus fleet in 10 years.

As many as 25 million children ride the familiar yellow buses each school day, and they and will have a healthier future with a cleaner fleet, Harris said.

“We are witnessing around our country and around the world the effects of extreme climate,” she said. “What we’re announcing today is a step forward in our nation’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gases, to invest in our economy … to invest in building the skills of America’s workforce. All with the goal of not only saving our children, but for them, saving our planet.”

Only about 1% of the nation’s 480,000 school buses were electric as of last year, but the push to abandon traditional diesel buses has gained momentum in recent years. Money for the new purchases is available under the federal Clean School Bus Program, which includes $5 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed last year.

The EPA initially made $500 million available for clean buses in May but increased that to $965 million last month, responding to what officials called overwhelming demand for electric buses across the country. An additional $1 billion is set to be awarded in the budget year that began Oct. 1.

The EPA said it received about 2,000 applications requesting nearly $4 billion for more than 12,000 buses, mostly electric. A total of 389 applications worth $913 million were accepted to support purchase of 2,463 buses, 95% of which will be electric, the EPA said. The remaining buses will run on compressed natural gas or propane.

The clean bus program “is accelerating our nation’s transition to electric and low-emission school buses while ensuring a brighter, healthier future for our children,” Regan said, calling it “just the beginning of our work to … reduce climate pollution and ensure the clean, breathable air that all our children deserve.”

The EPA initially made $500 million available for clean buses in May but increased that to $965 million last month, responding to what officials called overwhelming demand for electric buses across the country. An additional $1 billion is set to be awarded in the budget year that began Oct. 1.

The EPA said it received about 2,000 applications requesting nearly $4 billion for more than 12,000 buses, mostly electric. A total of 389 applications worth $913 million were accepted to support purchase of 2,463 buses, 95% of which will be electric, the EPA said. The remaining buses will run on compressed natural gas or propane.

School districts identified as priority areas serving low-income, rural or tribal students make up 99% of the projects that were selected, the White House said. More applications are under review, and the EPA plans to select more winners to reach the full $965 million in coming weeks.

Districts set to receive money range from Wrangell, Alaska, to Anniston, Alabama; and Teton County, Wyoming, to Wirt County, West Virginia. Besides Washington, major cities that won grants for clean school buses include New York, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Seattle.

Environmental and public health groups hailed the announcement, which comes after years of advocacy to replace diesel-powered buses with cleaner alternatives.

“It doesn’t make sense to send our kids to school on buses that create brain-harming, lung-harming, cancer-causing, climate-harming pollution,” said Molly Rauch, public health policy director for Moms Clean Air Force, an environmental group. “Our kids, our bus drivers and our communities deserve better.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell attended the ceremony with Harris and Regan. Murrray is running for reelection against Republican Tiffany Smiley.