The EPA hopes to notify 2021 DERA and ARP grant applicants of award status this February. - Logo courtesy of EPA

The EPA hopes to notify 2021 DERA and ARP grant applicants of award status this February.

Logo courtesy of EPA

It’s time to clean up, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)! Within the school transportation industry, the federal agency is focused on reducing emissions and offers several ways schools can receive monetary assistance to update their fleets, go green, and promote safer environments for students and staff.

This was the topic of one session at the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) Annual Conference, held virtually on Jan. 12. Jason Wilcox, an EPA physical scientist, shared insight into current and upcoming EPA funding opportunities.

“I want to get everybody thinking about, what’s the age of our fleets, what kind of emission controls do they have on them, and what can we do to clean up,” he said, adding that clean school buses are important because it’s not just students at risk; it’s the drivers and school staff who are also exposed to diesel dust.

DERA & Diesel Reductions

The Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) offers rebates and grants to reduce emissions from older diesel vehicles. The program has funded vehicle replacements or retrofits for over 2,000 vehicles so far. The last funding round of about $10 million saw applications close in November 2021. That round saw 314 applications from 42 states and 1,174 bus replacements requested.

“If it’s a heavy-duty diesel engine, there’s a high chance we can fund it,” Wilcox said.

About 30% of funds are awarded to state agencies and 70% to national programs. The latter bucket is divided into national grants, tribal and insular grants, and school bus rebates.

Jason Wilcox, EPA physical scientist, presents at the 2022 virtual NASDPTS annual conference. - Photo via NASDPTS conference

Jason Wilcox, EPA physical scientist, presents at the 2022 virtual NASDPTS annual conference.

Photo via NASDPTS conference

Wilcox made the distinction between DERA grants and rebates, noting the following for rebates:

  • Can fund exhaust retrofits at a 100% EPA cost share
  • Can fund bus replacements at a higher cost for certain technologies
    • All-electric bus replacements at a 45% cost share
      • Including funding for some charging infrastructure
    • California low-NOx standard replacements at 35% cost share
  • Can cover some admin costs and fund more buses with awards that exceed $1 million
  • Requires more complicated applications and reporting

To date, the program has funded about 32,000 school buses since 2008, covering both replacements and retrofits.

The 2022 national grant is planned for summer 2022, and the EPA is awaiting final funding numbers in the meantime.

American Rescue Plan

A more recent program, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) was launched in June 2021 as a result of the pandemic. It provided the EPA a total of $100 million to address disproportionate health risks in minority and low-income populations based on Census data.

The 2021 ARP School Bus Rebates saw $7 million go to eligible school districts and private fleets to replace old diesel buses with new electric ones. Tribal schools with 30% or more students living in poverty were eligible to apply for $300,000 per bus for up to four electric replacements.

The EPA received 64 applications from 25 states, with 162 bus replacements requested.

“We went into this not too sure about how much interest we’d see, but we’re happy to get the amount of applications we did,” Wilcox comments.

Selected applicants for both DERA and ARP will be notified this February, then fleets can begin ordering new buses.

Clean School Bus Program

The newest program on the block, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law brought about the Clean School Bus (CSB) Program, signed into law Dec. 15. This will provide $5 billion total over five years for underserved areas to replace existing school buses with low- or zero-emission buses.

CSB Eligible Bus Definitions

  • Zero-emission bus: A school bus that produces zero exhaust emission of any air pollutant and any greenhouse gas
  • Clean school bus: A school bus that reduces emissions and is operated entirely or in part using an alternative fuel or is a zero-emission bus
  • Alternative fuel: Liquified natural gas, compressed natural gas, hydrogen, propane, or biofuels

Eligible recipients will be chosen from four groups: state or local governmental entities responsible for school bus service or purchasing; eligible contractors; non-profit school transportation associations; and tribes or tribal organizations.

There is a CSB limitation that no state shall receive more than 10% of a fiscal year’s available funds.

Wilcox notes that he doesn’t have much new news yet, as “We’re not there yet for implementation,” but recommends checking out the EPA’s listening session materials for information on the program.

Lastly, Wilcox asked for feedback as the EPA develops the CSB program implementation plan, specifically mentioning NASDPTS members’ biggest hurdles in the electric transition, lessons learned that already have transitioned, what resources would be helpful, and how the agency can better engage with school districts. To provide feedback, email comments and suggestions to cleanschoolbus@epa.gov. He also noted the DERA helpline email: dera@epa.gov.

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