Senate committee advances bill requiring NJDEP to develop and implement electric school bus program

The Senate Transportation Committee earlier this year released legislation that would require the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to develop and implement an electric school bus program.

The bill’s advancement, which is worth revisiting as the world celebrates Earth Day on April 22, is headed to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for review.

Senators Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, and Linda Greenstein, D-Mercer/Middlesex, sponsored the legislation, which is designed to determine the operational reliability and cost effectiveness of replacing diesel-powered school buses with electric school buses for daily transportation of students.

“School buses are known to emit greenhouse gases and carcinogens, both of which contribute to climate change and threaten exposed individuals with elevated lifetime risks of developing cancer, asthma, and heart disease,” Greenstein said.

“By implementing this program, we can offer students a healthier and more environmentally friendly way to get to and from school each day.”

More than 800,000 New Jersey students ride to and from school during the academic year on one of the state’s 15,000 diesel school buses. Many school districts also rely on buses to transport students to sporting events, band competitions, field trips, and other activities.

Children riding school buses are exposed, on average, to four to 12 times the level of toxic exhaust in comparison to individuals riding in a car.

The Diegnan-Greenstein bill would fund for three years the purchase of new electric school buses and the necessary charging infrastructure in a minimum of 18 New Jersey school districts.

At least half of those districts would be located in a “low-income, urban, or environmental justice community,” whose population is particularly vulnerable. Sixty percent of students from low-income families ride a bus to school, compared to 45 percent of students from families with higher incomes, according to the World Resources Institute.

Implementing an electric school bus program presents promising opportunities for improving public health and decarbonizing New Jersey’s transportation sector, which is responsible for 46 percent of the state’s net greenhouse gas emissions.

From passenger cars to tractor trailers, Gov. Phil Murphy has established New Jersey as a leader for electric transportation.

“As a state, we have goals to significantly lower our carbon emissions and become a greener place to live,” Diegnan said. “Transitioning from the conventional diesel-fueled buses to those with zero-emissions will significantly decrease our state’s pollution levels.”

The mass adoption of electric school bus technology comes with challenges. The sticker price of a new electric school bus, for example, can be nearly triple that of a new diesel bus, making it difficult for school districts to afford making an immediate transition.

Still, electric school buses are believed to be cheaper to own over the life of the vehicles than diesel alternatives due to a combination of lower fuel and maintenance costs and because vehicle-to-grid capabilities would allow school districts to sell electric buses’ stored energy back to the utility.

A University of Delaware study estimates one electric school bus could save a district about $230,000 over its 14-year lifespan.

“The up-front costs of these buses may seem high, however, the long-term economic and environmental benefits are much greater,” Anjuli Ramos-Busot, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, testified during the Feb. 3 Senate Transportation Committee meeting.

“The economic and environmental benefits of using electric school buses far outweigh using diesel buses. We will save money and reduce greenhouse emissions. More importantly, our children will be able to breathe easier.”

The Diegnan-Greenstein bill requires the NJDEP to design a transparent outreach and application process to facilitate the selection of no less than six school districts and bus contractors annually for participation in the program. The NJDEP is to use its best efforts to select an equal number of grantees from the state’s northern, central, and southern regions.

The NJDEP is to award grants to districts or bus contractors selected to participate in the program to purchase or lease electric school buses and to purchase or lease and install electric school bus charging infrastructure.

The NJDEP is to provide $15 million annually in grants, subject to availability, for the duration of the three-year program. The DEP may use available monies to provide grants from Societal Benefits Charge revenues and the “Global Warming Solutions Fund.”

The bill requires the districts or bus contractors selected to participate in the program to submit reports to the NJDEP detailing the cost to operate electric school buses, maintenance records, transponder data, and details of any reliability issues related to the operation of the buses.

The NJDEP is to establish a working group that is to meet regularly to review the reports and recommend solutions to any issue raised in reports submitted by a program participant.

“This bill has great language on partnering with DEP and to make sure we are getting those buses all across New Jersey,” Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, testified during the Feb. 3 committee meeting.

“I’m incredibly excited for this bill because, ultimately, this should be the last generation of New Jersey school children that breathe in diesel emissions, which obviously have a direct impact on their lungs and the quality of their lives, and that’s ultimately what this is about, making cleaner air for our kids.”

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