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Why Did Muscogee County Reject Free Electric School Buses?

The Georgia county school district didn’t apply for the EPA’s Clean School Bus Grant Program and hasn’t signaled any interest in applying in the future. Officials say the limited mileage range and charging requirements would cause significant route delays.

Clouds of diesel that have blanketed school bus drivers and students for a century are becoming a thing of the past in school districts across the U.S. and throughout 15 school districts in Georgia, including two that neighbor Muscogee County.

This month, Meriwether and Chattahoochee County received 12 electric school buses from the EPA Clean School Bus Grant Program.

Despite the popularity and financial incentives of the program and health burdens from diesel and propane, the Muscogee County School District (MCSD) did not apply for the electric school buses and has not signaled interest in applying in the future.

When asked why MCSD did not apply for the buses, Kimberly Wright, the spokesperson for the district responded on behalf of the Chief Operations Officer, Travis Anderson via email:

"The mileage range and required charge time for a typical electric bus does not align with the driving pattern for MCSD. We continue to monitor improvements in the technology and hope to one day be able to incorporate electric buses into our fleet. We do not intend to seek funding for electric buses. It would be impractical and cause significant delays with getting students to school and back home each day."

The buses are virtually free to districts thanks to the EPA grant. The electric buses do not contribute to poor health conditions in children and carbon pollution, a known ingredient for warming up the planet.

Nationally, 2,700 clean school buses were purchased with $1 billion in grants from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law throughout 37 states. 151 buses were awarded to Georgia with a total award of $50 million.

Kristie Brooks, superintendent at Chattahoochee County school district, responded to the new fleet of electric school buses for her district with great enthusiasm.

"It's been fantastic," Brooks said. "We are really excited about it. For [the district], it was 100 percent a financial decision. We have to consistently replace buses each year. To be able to acquire a brand new bus that has support from the manufacturer for repairs was a win-win financially."

A traditional diesel bus averages about $135,000 (with security cameras and A/C) which ultimately comes out of the pockets of taxpayers.

"Diesel fuel costs are exorbitant," Brooks added. The bills average between five to six thousand dollars per month to fuel the 13 Chattahoochee County buses.

There are 224 buses throughout Muscogee County and $1,458,000 is budged for fuel, according to Wright.

Brooks and her colleagues looked at the EPA Clean School Bus Rebate Program (which they applied for in 2022) as an opportunity; to switch out some of the oldest buses they have dating back to 1999 for a 2024 all-electric bus.

All four buses that the Chattahoochee County School District were awarded have arrived, the first one as early as December. The total award rate for the four buses and the charging stations was $1,580,000. The two pairs of charging stations were installed several months ago in preparation for the bus's arrival.

So far, the electric bill, where the charging station's charge cost shows up, has not been significant, the superintendent said.

The latest cold spell put the electric school buses to the test.

"We learned they have to be run daily and then they will hold their charge very well," Brooks said. "The ability to keep the charge is not going to be an issue."

About 60 percent of the 1,800 students ride the bus to one of the three Chattahoochee County schools.

Willie Rembert drives the newest 2024 (exchanged for the 1999 bus) electric bus on a 26-mile local route, and the bus still has a 34 percent charge. Rembert told the L-E that it takes about 3 hours to charge. Parents have come up to Rembert at bus stops asking if the bus is running because it is so quiet.

"It has the same pick up as my old bus, but no noise," Rembert said. "I'm amazed by how far the technology has come. There's no engine. I enjoy driving it, it's a blast."

Brooks worked with the bus partner Navistar Inc. and to apply for the rebate and used the manufacturer Rush.

"We saw this was a viable option and presented it to the school board for approval. It was a 5-0 vote."

Elsewhere in Georgia, 45 minutes north of Columbus along Highway 27, students will soon be picked up and dropped off in electric buses on routes in Manchester and Greenville thanks to the same EPA Clean Bus Rebate Program.

Meriwether County School District was also motivated by a zero-cost incentive. The superintendent and the transportation director are excited but also understand that they are taking a risk trying out the new technology.

"We're going to put it to the test," Superintendent, Al Griffin, said. "This was an opportunity to upgrade our aging fleet. We hope it will be a fiscally responsible decision for our school system. The fact is, the buses and the charging stations didn't cost us any dollars."

Meriwether County has 52 buses that transport 2,600 students throughout the county to six schools. They are acquiring eight Thomas Engine buses from the vendor, Peach State.

The Meriwether County Transportation Director, Mickie Samper will put the electric buses on the inner city route where she believes it will be most efficient for charging range.

"I'll be using the electric buses in Greenville and Manchester because the stops go door to door there," Samper said.

Sampers' understanding is that electric buses can go up to 70 miles with one charge, which takes a few hours.

EPA Region 4, Senior Environmental Engineer Alan Powell told the Ledger-Enquirer the all-electric buses can go up to 100 miles on one charge.

A pair of chargers were installed behind the school in Manchester and another pair in Greenville. Like Chattachooche and the other 13 districts in Georgia that were awarded buses, the chargers were included in the the total award money for Meriwether County, $3,160,000.

"The application was very easy," Super said. "It was user-friendly. The school board gave their blessing for the vote."

The 2022 rebate program that Meriwether and Chattahoochee County Districts applied for was the first of several rounds. The EPA is going through rounds of funding, switching between rebate to grant to rebate. The second rebate (or the third round) closes Wednesday, January 31, at 4pm.

"The $5 billion dollar Bipartisan Infrastructure law provided the funding for this EPA program, and will continue to provide for the next 5 years." Powell said. "So we'll go through a number of these grants and rebates." The next grant will likely be sometime in the fall.

Muscogee County Mother Not Happy


The district's decision does not sit well with at least one parent.

"That is silly," said Latisha Spikes said in response to Anderson's reasoning.

Spikes has her CDL license and drove school buses when she lived in Michigan. She is furious that Muscogee County didn't even consider applying for the rebate. If route distances are a concern, Spikes suggests prioritizing special ed routes. Her seven-year-old daughter with special needs goes to Midland Academy and go at most 50 miles.

"If counties outside of Atlanta are going electric you can't say it's an issue," Spikes said.

For example, Savannah- Chatham County will receive 25 buses from a rebate funding of $9.8 million.

When Spikes drove buses in Michigan, she remembered the early hours and smells of exhaust while the bus warmed up.

"The bus driver gets there at 5 am and warms up the bus for an hour, so you are using fossil fuels for the diesel to warm up," she said. "They can spend up to an hour and a half a day idling while they inspect the vehicle."

Spikes recalled all of the oils and refrigerants used in the buses as well. She was a refrigerator mechanic while she served in the military.

"You don't have all of the oil in the electric system," she said. "We would likely spend less on maintenance as well."

Powell, the environmental engineer for EPA said less can go wrong with electric buses.

"They don't have oil changes anymore and there is less brakeware on buses."

Plus, the manufacturers and distributors want this to be successful and in some cases are the responsible party if they are the third party applicant instead of the district. Some districts don't want to be the first to apply to be the one's to test this technology.

"It's a brave new world if they are looking going electric," Powell chuckled.

Breathing Clean Air


The signature black plume of smoke that exhausts from the back of the school bus affects all students whether in the front or back of the bus or rural or city, according to experts.

"The diesel leaks exhaust from the motor and engine all the way along the exhaust line, it's not just what is coming out the tailpipe," Anne Mellinger-Birdsong said. "The kids that ride in rural or city all get that exhaust."

Birdsong is an environmental health expert who previously practiced as a pediatrician and now is the medical advisor for Atlanta-based, Mothers and Others for Clean Air.

When you burn a fuel, nitrogen dioxide is left in the air which damages children's lung growth, Birdsong tells the Ledger-Enquirer. There is a litany of hazardous pollutants that are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) that when inhaled contribute to asthma, lung development, and even mental capabilities.

"Diesel exhaust particulates include various chemicals like benzene and toluene," Birdsong said.

As far as natural gas and propane as an alternative to diesel Birdsong said they are not as dirty as diesel but not clean either.

"They are still carbon-based and still a greenhouse gas, and make nitrous dioxide and some particulates," she said. "Electric buses are still better overall. Georgia State University found when they added a filter to buses to remove diesel, those students had better end-of-year test scores."

Birdsong also added that asthma is the most chronic condition in children.

According to Department of Public Health records the western area of Georgia has the highest rate of asthma in children, at 13.9 percent in 2018.

"There are several more years of funding for clean school buses so there is time for counties to apply," she said. "It's great you can make the health and well-being better and maybe they will do better in school too."


(c)2024 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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