It’s hard to believe I’ve already been at the wheel of School Bus Fleet for a year. A lot of the job has been drinking from the firehose of information – the alphabet soup of associations, the different types of buses, the varieties of equipment, the manufacturers, the rules and regulations. I’ve taken in a lot, but there’s so much more to absorb and process. Let’s consider some of the highlights of my education during this enterprising first year.
Sometimes a Rebate Isn’t a Rebate
Among the schooling I’ve received from readers is that I don’t know everything about rebates. Most of my life, I’ve understood that rebates work like this: You buy something, you provide proof of purchase, and you get money back. In a recent editor’s note, I raised concerns about school districts showing reluctance to jump into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program with both feet because they might not want to pay up front for an electric bus and then wait for the federal government to write them a check.
One reader tried to set me straight:
“It is my understanding that the rebate program will provide funding to districts when the district submits a purchase order for the electric school bus. That means the school district will not be spending its money up front and waiting for reimbursement. Once a rebate award is made to a school district, EPA will provide purchase funds upon receipt of an official purchase order. EPA will fund based on a commitment to buy, not reimbursing locally spent funds.”
They're right about the process, but here’s the thing: An electric school bus and its charging infrastructure can run more than $400,000. Prioritized school districts under the EPA program get a maximum of $375,000 per electric bus. The EPA won’t cover anything above that line. If your district isn’t prioritized, the most you might get per bus is $275,000. Thus: yes, the EPA funds might come before the final bill is due, but it might not cover the full cost when that time comes. For cash-strapped school districts, that’s still a potential hurdle to adopting this technology.
Consider me better educated, but undaunted in my suspicion that the cost can still turn off school districts.
Change is Scary
Beyond cost concerns, school bus fleet electrification faces pushback from district technicians who don’t want to retool their shops or train mechanics to handle a mix of zero-emission electric or internal-combustion engine buses. Personally, I’m in favor of transportation technology that does less harm to the environment, but I can sympathize with anyone who sees a shift to electric school buses as too disruptive.
It may be inevitable that these new technologies are embraced from Los Angeles to Omaha to Durham. But how soon largely depends on cost parity between electric and diesel vehicles, more reliable supply chains allowing faster production, and easier access to training. A report from the nonprofit Diesel Technology Forum indicates that – as of December 2021 – 91% of the 500,000 school buses on the road in the United States run on diesel fuel. Electric doesn’t even come in at 1% yet. We’ll see what impact the Clean School Bus Program has on those numbers.
Pupil Transportation is a Small World
We cover the United States, Canada, even the U.S. territories, from Modesto City Schools to Bangor Public Schools. Major manufacturers build school buses from California and Oklahoma to North Carolina and Illinois to – very soon – West Virginia. But as sprawling as this industry can sometimes feel, it also feels rather small and interconnected. No matter where a bus is built, or where it rolls, it needs safety equipment, sanitization gear, effective tires, telematics that come from a familiar coterie of vendors that you’ll find advertising in this magazine.
Connections within this small world are critical. I feel like I’ve had a slow and steady introduction to the pupil transportation industry while working from home. Thanks to everyone who’s responded to my nagging emails and occasional phone calls. But I really enjoyed my first in-person adventure with the team from the National School Transportation Association, which held its annual conference in Niagara Falls. School Bus Fleet was the event’s media partner and it was great to hear from folks in attendance about how this magazine can better serve its readers.
Even if you didn’t attend, I want to hear from you. Don’t hesitate to reach out – even if it’s to correct my confusion!