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Maine Lawmakers Push for Expensive Electric School Bus Purchases

March 18, 2020
By Duggan Flanakin

Citing an impending “climate crisis,” Maine state Sen. Eloise Vitelli introduced as emergency legislation a bill setting a goal for the state Department of Education to transition the school bus fleet to 100 percent electric buses by 2040.

Citing an impending “climate crisis,” Maine state Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Arrowsic) introduced legislation setting a goal for the state Department of Education to transition the public-school bus fleet to 100 percent all-electric buses by 2040.

The bill would authorize spending current-year funds to purchase small electric school buses as replacements for or additions to the fleet. It would also create an annual training program for school bus mechanics and drivers and school transportation directors, and it mandates an assessment of the need to expand transportation administration staff to manage the transition of the public-school bus fleet to all-electric.

Fellow Democrats, including House Speaker Sara Gideon (Freeport), Senate President Troy Jackson (Allagash), and Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby (Lewiston), agreed to support the bill and consider it emergency legislation, which would allow schools to use already appropriated funds to purchase electric school buses immediately upon it being signed into law.

California Mandate

When introducing the bill, Vitelli said the world faces a climate emergency, and in Maine, transportation accounts for more than half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, with Maine’s 3,000 school buses being the largest individual source of these emissions.

The proposed electric bus program is similar to a unanimous mandate imposed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which voted to require all new transit buses purchased by 2029 emit no carbon dioxide in operation and that the entire fleet of 14,000 diesel, gasoline, and natural gas powered transit buses across the state be carbon-dioxide-free by 2040.

Falling Short of Promises

A 2019 report by the Institute for Energy Research (IER) shows many municipalities that have added electric buses to their fleets have been disappointed with their performance.

IER’s report cites a Los Angeles Times investigation into the performance of electric buses purchased by some cities in the state before CARB’s mandate.

“[Los Angeles’ and San Francisco’s] buses stalled on hills, required service calls much more frequently than older buses, and had unpredictable driving ranges below advertised distances, which were impaired by heat, cold, and the way drivers braked,” the report states.

The first five electric buses Los Angeles put into service were so unreliable the city removed them from their routes after less than five miles of operation, reports IER.

The performance of electric buses has not compared favorably with that of traditional fossil fuel powered buses, says IER Policy Analyst Alexander Stevens.

“Electric buses have typically underperformed their contractual promises,” said Stevens. “Performance issues with electric buses include how far they can run on a single charge and whether they will hold up with a full passenger load, especially in hilly terrain or under extreme weather conditions.”

New Mexico Fiasco

IER’s report also cites Albuquerque, New Mexico’s order of a fleet of 20 electric buses. Of the 16 delivered, seven were sent back because of cracks, leaking fluid, axle problems, and an inability to hold charges. Those flaws, combined with safety problems with the vehicle batteries and chargers, resulted in Albuquerque cancelling its order.

“The range limitations in both the California and New Mexico cases were caused by terrain and weather, both of which will present problems in Maine as well,” Stevens said. “Electric buses in Minnesota performed well until the temperature dropped below 20o F.

“School buses aren't just used for transporting kids to and from school,” Stevens said. “They are also often used for transportation to athletic events, field trips, etc.—trips that may exceed an electric bus’s range.”

‘Costly Handouts’

The higher costs of electric buses aren’t justified by their performance, says Stevens.

“Given the current state of the technology, mandatory electric buses are nothing more than costly handouts to bus manufacturers that will ultimately be paid for by the taxpayers,” Stevens said.

“Depending on where they are located, they offer little to no environmental benefits,” Stevens said.

Double the Price

With current technology, electric school buses do not make economic sense, says Adam Crepeau, a policy analyst at the Maine Policy Institute.

“At 100 to 135 miles under ideal conditions, electric buses have a fraction of the approximately 500-mile driving range the newest generation of diesel buses has,” said Crepeau. “This will severely impact the ability of schools to use them for longer trips for sporting events, field trips, and other experiences for students, in a largely rural state marked by cold weather and long bus routes.

“The electric school buses Maine Democrats want to buy cost about $230,000 each, more than twice what a school bus costs now,” Crepeau said. “Maine law requires replacing buses on a 10-year schedule, but it takes about 13 years for a battery-electric bus to repay its investment through lower maintenance and fuel costs, meaning schools will not recoup the additional costs before new buses must be purchased.”

‘Will Siphon Away Dollars’

A state electric bus mandate would rob schools of vital funds better devoted to classroom activities, says Crepeau.

“In addition to the higher up-front costs of the electric buses, operating them will require funding for charging stations as well as for training, and maybe adding staff to drive and maintain these new-technology vehicles,” Crepeau said. “These high costs should pose a major concern for Maine taxpayers, and the fact that the electric bus mandate will siphon away dollars that could be better spent on schools’ core educational functions should trouble the state’s parents.”

Duggan Flanakin (dflanakin@gmail.com) writes from Austin, Texas.

Internet Info

“California Mandates Zero-Emission Buses,” Institute for Energy Research, January 7, 2019: https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/renewable/california-mandates-zero-emission-buses/

Official Connections

Maine state Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Arrowsic): https://legislature.maine.gov/District-23; Eloise.Vitelli@legislature.maine.gov

Maine state Rep. Sara Gideon (D-Freeport): https://speakergideon.com/; https://speakergideon.com/contact/

Maine state Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Allagash): http://www.mainesenate.org/senator/senator/troy-jackson/; http://www.mainesenate.org/contact/

Maine state Sen. Nate Libby (D-Lewiston): http://www.natelibby.org/; nathan.libby@gmail.com