Phoenix School Districts Adding Electric Buses
Brought to you by Beltone – A Leader Listen healthcare.
School districts across the city are working to convert their bus fleets to electric buses, and parents are on board.
The advantages are obvious for families with school-age children, especially children with health problems. Two mothers interviewed by Cronkite News said their daughters with asthma saw an improvement in respiratory problems after they avoided regular school buses, which ran on diesel fuel.
“My eighth grader has asthma and she has benefited more from the electric bus,” said Elba Sánchez, a volunteer parent at Justine Spitalny Elementary School in Maryvale. “She’s had asthma attacks very constantly and now even forgets to use the inhaler.”
Spitalny is in the Cartwright Elementary School District, which, along with the Phoenix Union High School District, is leading the initiative to electrify bus fleets. Both districts serve Latino communities in South and West Phoenix.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Hispanic children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than non-Hispanic whites. And the American Lung Association’s most recent State of the Air report gave Maricopa County an Failing grade based on days of high ozone pollution and high particulate matter levels
Cartwright Superintendent LeeAnn Aguilar-Lawlor has developed a relationship with environmental organization Chispa Arizona to help drive the acquisition of more electric buses, said Juan Medrano, assistant superintendent for district operations.
Chispa sponsored two visits to the Twin Rivers School District in Sacramento, California, which has the largest fleet of electric buses in the country. Both visits inspired Cartwright and Phoenix Union.
“I think they have over 40 (electric buses) right now and are building infrastructure for another 80,” Medrano said. “We’ve had to see firsthand what it takes to prepare ourselves to do this successfully.”
The visits, held in December 2020 and 2021, helped district officials learn how to work with their partners to create infrastructure for the transition at their bus terminals, Medrano said.
Cartwright is also seeking state and national grants to help fund some of the cost of electric buses.
“We have one right now, and in the near future we want to build infrastructure to be able to have up to 10 or more buses,” Medrano said.
One grant comes from the state’s Clean Diesel Grant Program, created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to reduce diesel emissions. Funding is available to states to allow local fleets to retrofit or replace diesel engines with alternative fuel vehicles.
“We are gathering all information about this scholarship program in order to apply in time, hoping to get another bus next year,” Medrano said.
Maria Alaniz drives Cartwright’s electric bus assigned to Spitalny Elementary. Parents are happy that their children are no longer inhaling diesel fumes, Alaniz said, adding that children like to ride the e-bus because it is also much quieter.
She also said the bus fully charges in about six hours.
“It’s a good start to taking care of our planet,” Alaniz said.
Medrano said the cost of financing an 84-passenger electric bus like Cartwright’s would be about $450,000. Together with their partners, the district administrations are continuously working on the financing with the aim of expanding the electric fleet to 10 buses over the next five years.
“Our main motivation is to help improve air quality so that our students are in the healthiest environment at all times,” he said. “From boarding our buses throughout the school day to when they come home.”
Sánchez, Spitalny’s volunteer parent aide, said she is excited about the initiative, which will improve the well-being of future generations. She got to ride the e-bus and experience its benefits, including spacious, clean seats with seat belts.
“It would be great if all other schools had this type of bus,” she said. “I would advise all parents to fight and not give up hope.”
The Phoenix Union High School District owns four electric buses and plans to have 10 by 2024. From there, the district will assess effectiveness for further expansion.
Phoenix Union transportation director Bryan Henderson said the district has the same style for its four electric buses: a larger, smoother-running model that resembles a city bus to serve general routes.
“The next pair we buy will be this type of bus for transportation in the South Valley,” he said.
Funding for the first electric bus took 12 to 18 months, Henderson said, and was acquired with the help of grants from the so-called Volkswagen deal. As part of a 2017 settlement with the Justice Department, Volkswagen agreed to a $2.8 billion fine and $1.5 billion civil settlement for installing illegal software in millions of its diesel vehicles to be paid to meet federal emissions testing.
The Environmental Protection Agency found that Volkswagen vehicles emit up to 40 times more pollutants than the Clean Air Act allows.
Arizona is expected to receive nearly $57 million from the settlement over a 10-year period to fund projects that help reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. According to the VW agreement, the last installment of the money to Arizona was in 2019.
“There were funds … that we could apply for and apply to buy a bus,” Henderson said. “This enabled us to speed up acquisition somewhat.”
As in the Cartwright District, Phoenix Union has community support and partners in the bus industry, including Blue Bird, the school bus manufacturer, and the RWC Group, the commercial truck and bus dealership.
Henderson said students and parents have responded positively to the district’s significant progress.
“Students are excited to have something new and innovative that maybe a lot of other people don’t have, especially a lot of people in the rest of the country, not just here in Arizona,” he said.
Betty Beltran’s daughter, Angelica, who attended Metro Tech in Phoenix Union County, began having trouble breathing as soon as she started school. The school nurse told Beltran that Angelica, who rode the bus every school day, may have asthma.
“At least once a week they called me from school to say my daughter was sick,” Beltran said.
In the spring of 2012, she and Angelica moved to a neighborhood near the school, to a place with more vegetation, which made her concerned about her daughter’s allergies. But because her new home was close to the school, Beltran took Angelica to school every day.
“As soon as she stopped riding the school bus, my daughter stopped getting sick,” she said.
Beltran is part of the group of mothers participating in Chispa Arizona’s Healthy Buses for Healthy Kids program, which is working with school districts to purchase more electric school buses.
“Nobody believed in us,” said Beltran. “There were very few of us, the mothers of the family, the people of the community, who fought and we accomplished a lot.”