Image: Canva/NSTA

Image: Canva/NSTA

Just before the close of 2022, the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) secured a major advocacy team victory through the enactment of the FY23 Omnibus Appropriations Act.

Contained within the 4,000-page measure were two NSTA-backed amendments that brought substantive changes to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Program (CSB) and level the playing field for contractors.

Roughly one year earlier, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that included the $5-billion Clean School Bus Program. CSB represented a historical investment into the transition of the school bus fleet to zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). EPA launched Round 1 of the grant program last May.

After the dust settled on the first application period, EPA announced that 404 individual grants were approved that amounted to nearly a $1 billion allocation of grant funds for zero- and nearly zero-emission school buses across the United States. While NSTA remained grateful for the significant subsidy that the program provided, the organization identified two areas of concern that could affect the long-term future of the program.

First, there was a drafting glitch in the original legislation that defined “contractor” without including private school bus operators as one of the entities considered a contractor for purposes of the new law. This meant that private school bus operators could not directly access the grant funds; instead, we had to partner with a school district, or purchase a bus with grant funds from an OEM, or bus dealer.

Second, EPA outlined that the IIJA contained a five-year service requirement, meaning a private operator would have had to maintain a contract with a school district for five years, or else it would risk financial penalties – including repayment of the entire sum of grant proceeds.

NSTA explained to EPA that the service requirement provision had a chilling effect on grant applications because it represented an area where private operators have limited control. Many states have contract limitation provisions that restrict the number of years that private school bus operators can sign a contract with a school district – in order to provide student transportation services. In fact, some states contract limitations last only one year.

Since it was related that EPA did not have flexibility in the enforcement of these issues, the NSTA Advocacy Team decided that the organization would seek a legislative remedy to address our concerns.

After several more months of discussions with staff on Capitol Hill, a legislative vehicle appeared in the form of the FY23 Omnibus Appropriations Act. As progress gained momentum, the NSTA Executive Team visited the Capitol to engage directly with key Congressional members and staff – to lobby for direct access to grants, and flexibility in the 5-year contract requirement.

On Dec. 29, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2023 (H.R. 2617) into law, which includes $1.7 trillion in fiscal year (FY) 2023 discretionary government funding for all 12 annual spending bills, as well as a number of other provisions – including the NSTA amendments. After prolonged negotiations to reach an agreement on various procedural issues following the bill’s Dec. 20 introduction, the Senate passed the omnibus on Dec. 22 by a vote of 68-29 and the House passed the package on Dec. 23 by a vote of 225-201.

This final trip to D.C. for the year was one of my favorites, the Capitol was starting to open up and new members of Congress were on site for orientation – there was a productive energy in the air. It proved to be one of our most successful trips and represented a strong finish for the NSTA Advocacy Team. This legislative victory will benefit all school bus contractors by allowing equal and direct access to grant funds, as well as much needed flexibility in EPA enforcement. I’m really looking forward to our Annual Bus-In this April, we are on a roll!