News10NBC Investigates: Electric school bus mandate: Is it feasible? 

Electric School Bus Mandate: Is it Feasible?

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Governor Kathy Hochul is pushing school districts to speed up the switch to electric buses. Her new state budget proposal mandates districts stop buying new diesel buses by 2027 and stop using all diesel buses by 2035 but is that feasible? 

At the moment, most local school districts don’t even have a single electric bus so, when they hear they won’t be able to buy anything but that in just three years, there’s a bit of concern. 

The Gates-Chili School District qualified for some early funding from New York State to test out electric buses. “They handle great, just like a regular bus but they (the drivers) like the instant heat, they like going in, turning the heat on and they have heat right away,” says Director of Transportation, Matt Helmbold.

There are currently five full-sized electric buses in a fleet of about 80 in Gates-Chili. “Our infrastructure is set up for 20% of the fleet right now so, we’re looking to get to that goal,” Helmbold says.  But even a slow growth of the fleet is costly. 

The average diesel school bus costs around $130,000. The average electric school bus costs upwards of $400,000. In Gates-Chili, state grants have been covering the difference but according to the Empire Center for Public Policy, it will cost between $8-$15 Billion to switch out all of New York’s School buses.  The Governor has put aside $500 million.

Jennifer Lewke (News10NBC) – The money that the state offers to off-set the cost, that’s has to keep flowing or else you’re going to have to ask for a lot of money from taxpayers to completely redo the fleet?

Matt Helmbold – Correct.

And that’s the concern of some state lawmakers.

“It is really going to blow the budgets of every school district not just in Monroe County but in the entire state,” says Assembly Member Josh Jensen. “School districts just can’t raise the tax rate to cover this, nor should they. They have to go to the voters to ask for permission to borrow that money and there’s been no clarification that school districts have been given about what happens if taxpayers vote no.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Governor Kathy Hochul says, “Old school buses are putting children’s health at risk, spewing toxic fumes and pollutants into the air that are proven to have negative health impacts. After New York voters approved an Environmental Bond Act that allocated $500 Million for zero-emission school buses, Governor Hochul is working with communities across New York to allocate these funds and ensure they are fully utilized.”

The Governor’s office also points out that although the upfront costs are higher, the operating costs should be lower due to maintenance and fuel cost savings.  

In Gates-Chili, they haven’t had enough time to prove the savings yet.

“We’re still working on that, being electric it’s not like going to your pump and you know how much you’re putting in per gallon, we’re working with the power companies and it’s new to them as well,” Helmbold says.

As for maintenance costs, the buses are still under warranty so when work is needed, typically the dealer still handles it. 

Then of course, there’s the issue of battery life.

Jennifer Lewke – Have you had any issues where they’ve run out of battery?

Matt Helmbold – No, we’re pretty good at knowing.. we’re about a mile per percent we tell the drivers so if they go out with 80% –just don’t go over 80 miles.

Which is probably fine for most urban and suburban districts but could be a challenge for more rural districts with longer routes.

“I have very serious concerns and the way to remedy that is to make shorter bus routes but then that’s incurring even more costs to buy more buses and hire more bus drivers,” Assembly Member Jensen says.

The state says the price of electric buses and charging stations is coming down and the technology is getting better so the goal should be feasible over the next 10 years. Assembly Member Jensen is urging the Governor to reconsider.

“No school district leader that I’ve spoken to in my community, from across the state thinks this is a realistic thing to happen before 2035. So, my hope is that common sense prevails and that we kind of pump the breaks on this NY electric bus mandate.”