As part of the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a new Clean School Bus Program that earmarked $5 billion to help school districts switch from traditional diesel to “clean energy” electric school buses — but one of the program’s requirements is keeping those buses out of the low-income school districts that stand to benefit the most from them.
What’s Going On Here?
In order to qualify for first round of funding from these EPA grants, school districts are being required to identify the specific diesel buses they’d be replacing with the new, clean buses. The problem there is that many low-income school districts don’t own their own buses. And, because they rely on contractors or subsidized lease deals, they can’t meet the scrappage requirement.
In an open letter sent to the EPA, 14 members of Congress from Illinois wrote that, “These schools, regardless of their interest in the program or commitment to improving air quality for their students, are barred from funding to decarbonize their fleets.” In Chicago alone, that one requirement means that several Chicagoland school districts — a list that includes Proviso, Rich Township, Lindop, Prairie Hills, and Waukegan — won’t be able to participate in the Clean School Bus Program.
One of the districts negatively impacted by the EPA’s scrappage requirements is Rich Township HSD 227 on the south side. D227 contracts with a private company to bus its students, and would have to convince their contractor to scrap their buses — and that’s something they may not be willing to do. D227 Superintendent Johnnie Thomas thinks it’s unfair for districts like his to have to rely on an outside entity in order to even be able to apply for the federal funding. “With (bus driver) shortages, with Covid and things of that nature, we have very little leverage in negotiating costs of those services,” Thomas said. “This was a prime opportunity for us to have some leverage to help balance the cost of providing transportation services to our families.”
It gets worse.
If the private contractor agrees to the scrappage, they have to agree to serve the district that applies for the grant for a period of five years. No problem there, right? Once the five years are up, though, the contractor gets to keep the buses, whether they continue to serve the school district or not. To some, it might appear that it’s the contractor who would benefit most from the Clean School Bus Program, and not the district or students. “We’re excited that there is a push to become greener, to improve air quality in our area,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, because we don’t own a school bus and would have to partner, it just wasn’t advantageous for us.”
Illinois isn’t the only state school districts are facing this problem in. Susan Mudd, a senior policy advocate at the Midwest-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, said she has also heard similar concerns from districts in New York and Louisiana — with more sure to come.
The scrappage requirement, according to the EPA, wasn’t their idea. Instead, it came as a response “to feedback EPA has heard from communities overburdened with air pollution,” according to an EPA spokesperson who spoke to Inside Climate News. “[Those communities] expressed concern that, absent a replacement requirement, the most polluting diesel buses in the country would be relocated to their communities, further exacerbating long-standing environmental justice concerns.”
Sounds to me like the rich kids are worried that the poor kids might get a good deal on their used buses, but I may be too close to the whole thing. What do you guys think? Is the scrappage requirement the right way to go, or is this — like Cash 4 Clunkers — a well-aimed shot at the lower and middle class? Scroll on to the comments and let us know.
Electric Buses Bonus Content
If all this talk about electric school bus fleets has you excited to learn more, check out this episode below of CleanTech Talk, featuring the founder and CEO of Highland Electric Transportation, Duncan McIntyre, who specializes in helping school districts get affordable access to cleaner electric buses. Enjoy!
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