WA Legislature revs up plan to electrify 10,000 school buses

A bill to switch from diesel vehicles — plus $50M from cap-and-trade revenue — passed out of the Legislature, but did not offer a timeline.

Students board the bus to Hamilton International Middle School

Students board the bus to Hamilton International Middle School on the first day of school in this Sept. 14, 2022 file photo. A proposal to transition Washington’s diesel-powered school buses to zero-emission alternatives has passed the Legislature. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

Washington is poised to start transitioning its more than 10,000 school buses from diesel to electric, to cut the carbon pollution getting into kids’ lungs and our environment. 

The project is likely to take decades, and the price tag – and where the money will come from – is still up in the air. But the Legislature signaled its intent to start driving down this road during the 2024 session, and put a $50 million down payment toward electric buses in the state’s operating budget. Washington has 10,460 school buses. Seventy-six are electric. That’s almost 10,400 buses to go.

“It is as much about healthy kids as it is for the environment. … I understand the anxiety about this big change, but we can’t wait any longer. Our children’s future depends on this,”said Rep Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, who introduced House Bill 1368 to make this commitment to switch from diesel to electric school buses. 

Washington is following the lead of New York, which ordered all new school bus purchases be electric starting in 2027, and is aiming for a full switchover of its fleet by 2035.

Children are more susceptible to the effects of diesel exhaust around buses because they breathe 50 percent more air per pound for body weight than adults, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health. The fumes have been connected to asthma and lung cancer and impact as many as a third of U.S. students, their parents and educators each day.

A National Resources Defense Council study concluded a child riding inside a diesel school bus may be exposed to up to four times the level of diesel exhaust as someone riding in a car ahead of it. Exposure levels were higher in the back of the bus and when windows were closed. The study said children exposed to diesel exhaust while riding in a school bus for one to two hours a day, 180 days a year, for 10 years might result in 23 to 46 additional cancer deaths per 1 million children.

“I’m shocked and frustrated. I was exposed to unhealthy fumes just to go to and from school,” said 17-year-old Seattle student Sarah Lo at a Feb. 24 hearing before the Senate Ways & Means Committee. Many Seattle students routinely use diesel school buses, but others ride public buses that could be electric.

On Feb. 29, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed HB1368 along party lines. It will require the state’s Ecology Department to manage grants to school districts to replace their old diesel buses with electric buses, with poorer districts being the priority. 

On Tuesday, March 5, the House approved an amended bill, also along party lines. The main change eliminated a timetable to start the gradual but intentional transition in 2027; the bill now calls for a more open-ended bus replacement schedule based on when it makes financial sense: School districts will be required to buy electric buses when the total cost of owning such buses (buying and operating them and the charging infrastructure) drops below the total cost to a district of operating fuel-run buses. No one knows exactly when that point will be reached, but the idea, Senn said, is that the total costs will shrink over the years until the extra expense is gone. 

The bill also requires the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to survey the state’s 295 school districts about how to move toward adopting zero-emission buses.

A King County Metro battery bus charges at the charging station at Eastgate Transit Center on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Bellevue. Battery buses take five to 10 minutes to fully charge, and they stop to charge after going through their route. (Jovelle Tamayo for Cascade PBS)

Currently, the average price of an electric school bus is $412,907 while the corresponding average price of a gas or diesel bus is $142,154, according to OSPI.

“This is to move it forward if and when we can move it,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, during last Thursday’s vote.

Also Thursday, Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, said: “The state is trying to get its tentacles in [school board business]. … This bill is like the Washington state Legislature trying to become the local school board’s transportation director.”

The state budget for fiscal 2024-2025 includes $50 million — revenue from the cap-and-invest program that puts a price on carbon emissions — to go to poorer school districts to immediately begin the transition. “We’re focusing first on those overburdened communities,” Senn said. 

The changes in HB 1368 reflect concerns raised by school districts and OSPI as the bill went through the Senate. Several school officials liked the health and environment benefits, but worried about the originally proposed tighter timetables, the massive installation of charging equipment, retraining mechanics to handle electric buses and finding all the money needed to accomplish these tasks.

OSPI hasn’t made a transition timeline for the revised bill or calculated cost estimates for the statewide transition. 

John Holman, CEO of the Lake Washington School District, noted that his school system has more than 130 buses and replaces them at a rate of 10 annually. “Unfortunately transitioning to electric buses is easier said than done. … We are ready and willing to do the transition, but we can only do so through a partnership and with ample support from the state.”

“We want to make sure it works. We’ve had technologies overpromised before, and we hope this is not another taste of that,” said Mike Hoover of the Washington State School Directors Association. 

Paul Marquardt, executive director for operations for the Bethel School District, said a typical bus run is about 80 miles. “We would not be able to complete a run with an electric bus,” he said. OSPI said the average range of an electric bus is 45 to 55 miles for a small bus and 70 to 90 miles for a large bus.

Senn said the legislation allows school districts to keep enough diesel buses to handle routes that are longer than the range of an electric bus. She expects electric bus ranges to increase as the technology improves.

Other environmental initiatives

Lawmakers adopted a few other environmental proposals this session, including the following:

– The supplemental budget for the 2024-2025 fiscal year includes $150 million for the state’s utilities to issue $200 rebates this fall to lower- and middle-income customers as a gesture to offset increased gas prices due to the state’s new cap-and-invest program. Republicans called this a cynical election-year ploy. Democrats say electioneering has nothing to do with this rebate, which the GOP also had called for several months ago.

Senate Bill 6058 passed along party lines to help link Washington’s cap-and-invest system with California’s and Quebec’s in an attempt to lower share prices and potentially shrink Washington gas prices. Washington is negotiating with California and Quebec on potentially meshing the three carbon pollution markets. 

House Bill 1589 to help the state’s largest gas and electric utility, Puget Sound Energy, transition to clean energy and help individuals do the same. The complicated measure says its focus is on reducing regulatory barriers so PSE can make progress on its clean-energy goals. The incentives for customers would include rebates and help transitioning to electricity from other fuel sources. The bill passed both houses along party lines.

And these didn’t pass:

Senate Bill 6052 would have created a new Washington agency to watchdog the state’s oil industry. That proposal died in the Senate Ways & Means Committee in early February because of the estimated $30 million expense of setting up the cybersecurity that would be required to collect data. Since this is not a budget session, lawmakers were charged only with tweaking the 2023-2025 budget, and that $30 million is considered more than a tweak. Bill sponsor Sen Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, said he expects the money will be  available in the 2025 budget session, and the bill is expected to be revived next year.

House Bill 1391, which the advocacy group Climate Solutions calls a “one-stop shop” for clean energy incentives from both the federal government and the Climate Commitment Act. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8