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Zero-emission school bus plan moves ahead

School districts are required to transition to zero emission school buses under a law recently approved by the state House and Senate.

The bill received numerous amendments after districts voiced concerns over reliability, range and the time allowed to make the switch.

Introduced by Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, HB 1368 is an effort to not only reduce emissions, but to prioritize the health of children. Six other states have zero-emission school bus transitions already written into law.

“We as a student body are exposed to five to 15 times more air pollution than adults as a result of school bus emissions alone,” said Moa Valentin, President of the Mercer High School Green Team.

Diesel fumes produced by school buses contain toxic particulates that can affect student cognitive learning and growth. The matter can have long-term effects on lungs, the brain and the immune system.

“We are going to school to learn, not to inhibit our learning abilities in our mind or body,” Valentin said.

"The "Zero-Emission School Bus Grant Program," managed by the Department of Ecology, as well as funds from the Climate Commitment Act will support schools, totalling a $40 million budget for electric buses. These expenses include planning, acquiring buses, fueling, charging, scrapping old diesel buses, driver training and more."

Senn said the state will primarily target low-income schools and communities disproportionately affected by health issues stemming from climate change, particularly air pollution.

Many school officials say they worry about some of the plan’s details.

“We have had technology be over promised before, and we're hoping this is not another case of that,” Mike Hoover of Washington State School Directors Association, said. “We are very much in support of the concept of zero emission, but we have to make it work in every area of our state, and that 2027 timeline is coming up very fast.”

Senn explained timeline for compliance has been eliminated.

Schools are now only required to start the transition to a zero-emission fleet “once the total cost of ownership of zero emission buses is less than or equal to that of diesel buses,” according to Senn.

If school districts get to this point of the cost evening out and still feel this transition is not feasible, they can “request an extension” for extra time, but it can’t be more than five years.

“I understand the anxiety about this big change, but we just can't wait any longer,” Senn said. “Our children's future depends on it.”

Another concern from schools was how functional and reliable these buses are.

“I have attended many informational sessions on electric or zero emission vehicles, and each and every one of these sessions the consistent message is that the technology is not there, but they hope that it will be,” Paul Marquardt, Executive Director of Operations for the Bethel School District.

Marquardt suggested explicitly adding into the bill propane and hybrid options to combat some of their worries.

“The current range of an electric school bus is 75 miles, with a 30% reduction on cold days,” Marquardt said. “In Bethel, an average bus run is 80 miles. We would not be able to complete one bus run with an electric bus.”

Senn assured this technology exists, and that 24 different models and manufacturers have been identified for schools to choose from.

Leah Missik, of Climate Solutions, stressed the urgency of this legislation.

“When people talk about climate, oftentimes they talk about their grandkids,” Missik said. “But I want to emphasize that climate is not just about our grandkids, but our kids right now.”

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