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Maine Bill Calls for Increased Funding of Electric School Buses

Adam Mayo is cautiously optimistic about the promise of electric school buses.

The director of transportation for Maine School Administrative District 75, located about half-way between the state capital of Augusta to the northeast and Portland to the southwest, told School Transportation News that he is excited at the prospect of adopting the new power technology. On the other hand, he noted concerns shared by many of his peers nationwide.

“With all-new technology, there are always concerns as to how they will be once [integrated] into service,” explained Mayo, who oversees a fleet of 48 school buses that are fueled by diesel and gasoline. “Some of those concerns include distance the bus can travel on a charge, as we travel quite a distance for many of our routes and trips.”

He also cited questions about how the batteries will hold up in Maine’s cold temperatures, and any additional needs or changes to accommodate charging. But the biggest obstacle to overcome?

“As always, the cost of the bus to purchase initially, and to maintain battery replacement,” he added.

Mayo responded to questions posed as a result of legislation that was introduced in December that would require all school buses statewide to operate with electric power by 2040. There are currently 3,000 school buses in operation statewide.

A high school in Bar Harbor recently was awarded $280,000 in Volkswagen Mitigation Trust funds to offset the purchase of a new electric bus. It is thought to be the first of its kind in the state, according to the the Maine Department of Transportation.

The Maine Beneficiary Mitigation Plan states that Volkswagen funds can be used to repower an eligible school bus with an all-electric engine or replace an existing bus with an all-electric bus. This includes costs for charging infrastructure.

LD 1894 hopes to spur further adoption. At this report, the bill remained in the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, where it was referred to on Christmas Eve. If passed into law, it would require the Maine Department of Education to adopt new rules for school bus bid requirements and electric charging stations.

The DOE would also need to develop an electric school bus training program for mechanics, drivers and transportation directors. And it would also be tasked with saving “a certain percentage of available resources” to purchase small electric buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less.

The bill does not specify the funding source, whether that be via the VW settlement or another program.

“We look forward to realizing this effort through more fully-developed partnerships,” commented Pat Hinckley, the transportation and facilities administrator at the Maine Department of Education.

She cited a range of considerations that affect the upfront price, such as local district preferences on vehicle type, options and styles. Then there are the types of batteries and charging stations, vehicle-to-grid charging capabilities, state and regional electric distribution, and OEM bus designs, to name a few.

“For that reason, it seems appropriate to say that the price of an electric school bus varies and maybe two to three times the price of an average school bus—depending on local district choices,” she added.

Hinckley said the majority of the state fleet consists of Type C conventional school buses, which the state recommends districts replace every 10 years or 125,000 miles. The same recommendation applies to Type A buses, which she added have become more popular purchases in recent years.

Meanwhile, the state replacement recommendation for Type D transit-style buses is 14 years or 250,000 miles.

But as long as the buses pass their bi-annual inspections by a recognized provider, and an additional annual inspection by the state police, districts can continue to operate them.

“Right now, we at MSAD No. 75 are replacing buses 15 to 16 years old—so much older than the recommended 10 years [for Type Cs],” reported Mayo. “This seems to be the average in recent years.”

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Hinckley relayed that the state provides about $4 million a year to subsidize new school bus purchases, with the maximum state allocation based on a basic bus and excluding extras. She added that the amount school districts pay can vary. “With local choice, districts may order vehicles of their choice that meet specifications,” she noted.

When no state funding is available, Mayo said MSAD 75 includes the replacement of up to three buses in the annual budget. STN asked him if he thinks vehicle-to-grid charging could eventually subsidize the district’s power needs and, perhaps one day, school bus purchasing.

“This is also a new concept to us and one that we would like to gain more information on before weighing in on it or making a decision to purchase an electric bus because of it,” he responded. “There are continual efforts made to create revenue, but again the initial cost of the school bus would be the biggest factor for us.”

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