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Quieter, cleaner electric school buses hit Phoenix streets. Why they’re good for kids

AZ Central

The federal government has awarded funding for 47 new electric school buses to school districts across Phoenix, replacing gas-powered buses with zero-emission models.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Martha Guzman, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, introduced some of the new fleet Tuesday with a ride-along at Isaac Middle School. The school received six electric buses from the EPA’s Clean School Bus fund.

“These will be clean buses where we don’t have to worry about the tailpipe emissions,” said Gallego. “There’s a lot of implications of diesel fuel, and we’ll be able to move away from them and they’ll be high-quality, new buses.”

The all-electric Bluebird buses run on 155 kilowatt-hour batteries that can travel about 100 miles per charge. Participating schools receive charging infrastructure to ensure drivers can fulfill their daily routes.

With money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program will provide $5 billion over five years to replace school buses with zero-emission and low-emission models. Eligible districts can apply for funding under the program.

So far, the initiative has awarded nearly $2 billion, funding about 5,000 school buses for over 600 schools.

The new buses are meant to benefit students and the environment, address ozone pollution in metro Phoenix and jump-start the future of electrification in the region’s public transit system.

The benefits of electric school buses

Instead of the hum of a gas engine, all that was audible on the ride-along Tuesday was the riders’ surprise at the strength of the bus’ air conditioning and the quiet of the drive.

Officials say electric school buses will bring several benefits to schools beyond a quieter commute to school.

Gas-powered buses can expose children to harmful pollutants that can trigger asthma attacks and increase the risk of heart disease and lung disease. Children are more vulnerable to air pollution, as their respiratory systems are still developing.

“Asthma is a huge issue for so many children, and when they are exposed to diesel, it gets dangerous,” said Hazel Chandler, Arizona field coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force.

She recalled one of the scariest moments of her life when she witnessed a child suffer a life-threatening asthma attack while waiting outside a diesel school bus.

“We cannot mess with exposing our kids to diesel fuel,” she said, “Electric buses offer a cleaner, quieter and healthier alternative for all children.”

The zero-emission buses are better for the environment, as they will not produce greenhouse gasses that warm the atmosphere. They are also more cost-effective for districts, requiring less maintenance and lower energy costs.

Why is pollution a problem in Phoenix?

Maricopa County is in nonattainment for ozone and particulate matter pollutant standards set by the EPA, with pollution levels harmful to public health and the environment.

The Phoenix metro was ranked the fifth-worst in the nation for ozone pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s 2023 State of the Air Report.

Guzman said Maricopa County will soon be upgraded from moderate to serious nonattainment under stricter pollution standards.

“It’s an issue we’re seeing a lot in the Southwest where we have warming happening at a higher level,” she said. “Warming exacerbates ozone, and buses and heavy-duty trucks are really some of the biggest sources of that pollution.”

The transition to electric school buses will help reduce ozone pollution in Phoenix and across the state.

Arizona has received $59 million for clean school buses from the EPA since 2002, providing 191 vehicles. Phoenix districts received $18 million from these grants for the 47 buses.

The future of transit

Isaac School District has applied for more EPA funding to add buses to its fleet in the future. Gallego hopes more buses will be converted to electric in Phoenix and across the country.

A diesel bus produces about 3.3 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile and transitioning to electric buses nationwide could help avoid 2.1 million tons of carbon emissions every year, according to Gallego.

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