Pupil transportation gets a big jolt this year as government funding, big-city infrastructure projects and corporate partnerships align to rapidly expand electric bus fleets. The State of Illinois is providing a glimpse into how fleets will convert to battery-powered buses from diesel-fueled buses over the next decade.
Urban and rural communities in Illinois are securing millions of dollars from federal and state agencies this year for new electric buses and charging stations. Additionally, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) unveiled its roadmap for full electrification of its public bus fleet, facilities and infrastructure by 2040.
Through the Driving a Cleaner Illinois program, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency in January granted $4.2 million to school districts and student transportation companies in Chicago and throughout Cook, Lake and Madison counties to purchase 17 electric buses. Fourteen schools and one Head Start agency will benefit from the purchase of all-electric school buses and charging stations, according to Illinois EPA.
First Student operates school bus service for five of the winning districts, representing over $1.06 million in funds.
The awards are the third and final installment of the state’s allocation of $108 million received from the $1.45 billion Volkswagen Clean Air Act Civil Settlement involving the illegal use of diesel emissions software in the automaker’s vehicles. The first round of funding in 2018 went to an all-electric school bus pilot program in Cook County, and the second round went toward similar projects in Madison County.
Located 50 miles northwest of Chicago, the Huntley Consolidated School District 158 was granted over $1.04 million by the Illinois EPA. The district is now implementing its project to launch four new electric school buses. Next steps include choosing a bus manufacturer and placing battery charging stations on school campuses. The district aims to have vehicles and stations operating within 18 months. Currently, the transportation department runs more than 100 diesel school buses, which travel more than a million miles on rural roads annually.
“This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for our district and reflects our commitment to clean energy and eco-friendly practices that make sense in our 21st-century world,” said Superintendent Dr. Scott Rowe.
Near Joliet, Illinois, a corporate-school district partnership is facilitating the largest zero-emission school bus fleet conversion program in the Midwest. The Troy Community Consolidated School District 30-C (Troy 30-C) is transitioning its 64-school diesel/gas bus fleet to electric vehicles and installing charging infrastructure in as soon as five years through a Fleet-as-a-Service (FaaS) contract.
The district currently transports over 3,100 students to and from school daily and operates buses in the evening to transport 1,950 students for extracurricular activities. It began heading in a zero-emissions direction three years ago when it placed solar panels on the roofs to power buildings, extra energy is sent to the local electric grid.
In March, the district awarded its school transportation contract to Levo Mobility, a joint venture of alternative energy investment firm Stonepeak Partners, along with Evolve Infrastructure Transition, and Nuvve, a provider of intelligent energy management platforms. Levo Mobility will deliver a full suite of services, including all site planning, infrastructure installation, electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE), grant writing and utility program engagement. Additionally, Levo Mobility will support the district’s future procurement of electric school buses by maximizing available rebates and subsidy opportunities to minimize the total cost to the district. Troy 30-C will deploy two electric buses initially while building out charging infrastructure for the long term.
“It’s a certainty that schools will transition to electric buses and our district believes that as a sustainability champion in the community, it’s our responsibility to lead and act decisively to create the best possible learning environment for our students,” said Troy 30-C Superintendent Dr. Todd J. Koehl.
Levo Mobility has $750 million in committed capital to fund electric fleet conversions. The joint venture has deployments in 13 states, including California, Massachusetts and New York.
Statewide, public transit agencies are providing lessons to school districts about how to actively increase the numbers of electric vehicles and charging stations by utilizing other funding sources. Over the next five years, Illinois will receive nearly $150 million from the U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This year alone, $22 million is expected to be spent installing electric vehicle infrastructure along key roads and highways.
As one of the nation’s largest bus systems, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) in February announced its plan for full electrification of vehicles and facilities by 2040. The study, “Charging Forward: CTA Bus Electrification Planning Report,” recommends where to install charging infrastructure and how to be cost-efficient by integrating with other public programs. The study will be used to compete for more funding, advocate policies and drive adoption of new technology into the city. To date, CTA has secured more than $130 million in grant funding to add electric buses and install chargers.
Out of its 1,800-bus fleet, CTA currently has 11 electric buses in service, and 14 more are expected to join the fleet later this year. CTA introduced its first two all-electric buses in 2014 and it was the nation’s first transit agency to operate electric buses in all four seasons.
“Economically disadvantaged areas of Chicago are being prioritized and will be the earliest to benefit from positive air quality impacts of electric buses,” said Jacky Grimshaw, vice president, Government Affairs at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
The CTA system supplements pupil transportation for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which is among the nation’s top five largest school districts with nearly 350,000 students in 636 schools this year. CPS transportation services have been significantly impacted by the national bus driver shortage, so the department must prioritize service for students most in need. The school district also provides public bus fare discounts and up to $500 monthly financial aid to eligible families to self-transport their students to school.
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Located at the Iowa border, the Rock Island County Metropolitan Mass Transit District (MetroLINK) received $5 million from a Rebuild Illinois grant in February. The state funds will pay for more charging stations to accommodate the area’s growing fleet of battery-powered electric buses.
The quad cities public transportation system will have a total of 17 electric buses by this spring, and the funding will increase charging capacity to 20 electric buses. The public transportation system runs mostly compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.
“With 30 percent of our fleet soon running on battery electric, these funds come at an especially critical time as we look to increase our battery-electric bus footprint in an effort to promote environmental responsibility,” said Berlinda Tyler-Jamison, MetroLINK board chair.