In a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin along with 12 of their Illinois colleagues expressed concerns that the EPA Clean School Bus Program is unfair to school districts that outsource transportation service.
The Clean School Bus Program (CSBP), which was signed into law as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Joe Biden last fall, provides $5 billion over fiscal years 2022 through 2026 to fund the replacement of zero- and low-emission school buses. The first round of funding, in the form of a rebate, opened in May and remains open until Aug. 19.
However, Schakowsky, who is also a senior chief deputy whip and chair of the consumer protection and commerce subcommittee, and Durbin state that the rebate requirements are not fully inclusive to all Illinois school districts.
“This new program offers an unprecedented opportunity to begin transitioning our nation’s school bus fleet to clean, low- and zero-emission vehicles, but it has come to our attention that the current design of the program may present challenges for Illinois schools,” the letter dated June 17 reads. “Some Chicago-area school districts, including Proviso, Rich Township, Lindop, Prairie-Hills, Waukegan, and others are interested in applying to this new program but may be locked out due to EPA-imposed scrappage requirements that run contrary to the intention of the law. We also are troubled by the exclusion of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from the list of priority school districts.”
The letter states that many Illinois schools contract out transportation services, but now want to purchase their own zero- or clean-emissions buses. However, due to the EPA requirement that model-year 2010 or older diesel buses must be scraped in order to purchase new buses, “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,” Schakowsky and Durbin add.
In previous webinars hosted by the EPA, agency officials said that if a fleet has no eligible 2010 or older diesel school buses and is requesting zero-emissions school buses, the fleets can either scrap 2010 or older non-diesel internal combustion engines or scrap, sell or donate 2011 or newer internal combustion engine buses. However, the applicant must replace a school bus to be eligible for a new one.
“We understand EPA adjusted its final guidance to allow districts in this situation to scrap a bus (or buses) located elsewhere that have been used for student transportation,” the letter continues. “We remain concerned that, even with this adjustment, EPA has created a barrier to the program that Congress did not intend. Districts will have to spend time seeking and potentially paying for a bus (or buses) to scrap when their time and resources would more productively be spent working with utilities to identify and plan for building up charging infrastructure.
“This is a barrier to applying and could arbitrarily drive up the value of diesel buses, further limiting access. It unnecessarily pits school districts against one another in a scramble for old buses and runs contrary to the spirit of the program, which seeks to promote equitable access and reduce harmful emissions for as many schools as possible. Denying these districts, a chance to apply because they cannot locate a dirty bus (or buses) or do not have the capacity to conduct a search is both troubling and inconsistent with the law.”
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The lawmakers are urging EPA to amend its guidance and remove the requirement or create exemptions. At a minimum, the letter asks that EPA facilitate and identify old buses on behalf of applicants, so schools don’t have to locate the buses themselves.
“Districts transitioning their bus ownership model deserve the opportunity to secure clean electric school buses and enjoy the health benefits that the program intended,” the letter says.
The EPA announced that while private fleets cannot apply for the funds directly, they can partner with a school district. This means a public school district would apply to replace buses owned by the private fleet, and if selected the school district must pass the funds to the private fleet. The new buses operated by the contractor must serve the school district for at least five years.
Additionally, the Illinois lawmakers said they are concerned with the EPA’s decision to use the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates to determine prioritized school districts. The letter notes that Chicago Public Schools serves more low-income students than the entire student body in many districts included on the priority list.
Under EPA’s current eligibility requirements, 20 percent of the district’s student population must be below the poverty line. But CPS currently has 19.9 percent of its student population below the poverty line.
A press release issued by Schakowsky’s office says that while sub-districts and specific schools within CPS meet this benchmark, the schools are not able to receive priority because EPA only measures by the entire school district.
“Relegating CPS to the non-priority pool disadvantages thousands of students who the law is specifically designed to assist,” the letter states. “We strongly encourage EPA to allow large districts like CPS to apply for sub-districts and designated schools (e.g., transportation zones or attendance areas with more than 20 percent of students below the poverty rate) as if they are on the priority list. Ensuring these historically disenfranchised schools receive the full benefits of the CSBP should be among EPA’s highest priorities.”
EPA has not responded to a request for comment at this writing.