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Opinion: Transition Colorado’s school buses to electric

We have the money. We have the leadership. All we have to lose is the toxic diesel exhaust

The yellow school bus encapsulates so many memories of my childhood: shivering at the street corner with the neighbors wondering when it would arrive; sharing a secret with a friend as we huddled in our two-seater; French braiding our hair and singing the school song on the way to field hockey games.

Alexandra Simon

These memories, however, are tainted with the diesel exhaust — classified as a likely carcinogen by the EPA — we were all breathing on our way to school.

Soon, this may become a problem of the past. The passage of the recent federal infrastructure bill, combined with technological advances, has provided both the ways and means for electric school buses to hit the road and provide children with a cleaner, healthier ride to go to and from school.

In passing the bipartisan infrastructure investment package, Congress provided $2.5 billion in funding specifically for zero-emission electric school buses and an additional $2.5 billion for all types of low-emission buses, which could include electric buses of all types — school, municipal transit, and others. It’s enough money to replace more than 20,000 diesel buses across the country with clean electric models.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Gov. Jared Polis is acting too. In early December, he presented a budget proposal that includes an ask for $150 million for electric school buses, enough to replace hundreds of diesel buses over the coming decade.

This funding is a huge win for Colorado kids, schools and the planet. Diesel exhaust has been linked to numerous health problems, including lung cancer, asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia. It’s frightening to think about the damage diesel pollution has inflicted on my lungs and those of the millions of American children who take buses to school every day.

Beyond protecting our childrens’ health, federal and state support for transitioning to electric school buses is a serious step toward addressing the climate crisis. Transportation is the single largest source of climate-harming carbon emissions in the United States and the leading cause of climate pollution in Colorado. Replacing our fossil-fuel powered buses with electric models would significantly reduce carbon pollution, helping to mitigate climate change.

The passage of the federal bill represents a major milestone in the campaign for electric buses. When the first electric school bus in the United States rolled out in California in 2014, the nationwide transition to electric buses seemed like decades away. But now, only eight years later, there are 32 electric school buses planned or operational in Colorado and millions of dollars in new funding coming down the line.

The benefits of electric school buses are real and already being felt in two Colorado locations: Boulder and Kremmling. At an event we hosted in the fall, Landon Hilliard, the safe routes program coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District, cited lower maintenance and fuel costs— and a very quiet ride! — as the top benefits.

Bethany Aurin, transportation director for the West Grand School District, which serves Kremmling, noted that  electric school buses have a “peppy” performance uphill and “toasty” temperatures inside the bus during Kremmling’s cold winter months. The bus has also served as a “conversation starter” in this mountain community, opening up dialogue around climate change and transportation electrification.

Congress’ vote on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and Gov. Polis’s proposal comes at a critical time for electric school buses: The funding from Volkswagen’s court settlement over its deceptive emissions reporting — which had provided grant funding to Colorado school districts for electric buses — is nearly exhausted.

With school district budgets stretched thin, many school districts cannot afford the upfront cost of a new electric bus, even though the buses would save the district money over time in lower fuel and maintenance costs.

The combination of both federal and state support sends a message to manufacturers that the demand has arrived, and paves the way for hundreds of new electric buses to merge onto Colorado roads.

And with cleaner air and quieter ride, you might just hear that school song a little bit clearer on the way to the next field hockey game.


Alexandra Simon, of Denver, is an advocate for CoPIRG and the CoPIRG Foundation.


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