Lawmakers want more money for electric school buses

By: Mariah Baca/ NM News Port

A plan to help more districts switch to electric school buses has so far failed to pick up any speed during this year’s 30-day legislative session.

The proposal, introduced by three current and former school teachers, all Democrats, would help districts replace old diesel buses with new electric or zero-emission alternative fuel models. Advocates say districts need just a little bit more on top of federal grants and that the change would improve the health of students and the environment.

Reps. Debbie Sariñana Yanira Gurrola, both of Albuquerque, introduced HB 75 in the House, while former public school teacher Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, introduced the same plan in the Senate. 

The federal government’s bipartisan infrastructure law included $5 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency to help school districts buy electric school buses, and in 2022, five school districts in Las Cruces, Dora, Dulce, Lake Arthur and Pecos were awarded funding from the Clean School Bus program.

But the federal money falls short of the total price tag. These proposals would “provide state money to supplement some federal money that districts can apply for to get almost all the cost of an electric school bus paid for,” lobbyist Charles Goodmacher with the New Mexico Voices for Children Action Fund said in an interview at the state capitol.

Exposure to diesel exhaust is a health risk for students because it can lead to asthma and respiratory illnesses, according to a report Goodmacher presented to lawmakers in December.  Making the switch to zero-emission buses would eliminate some diesel exhaust emissions, improving air quality for students and others.

Lake Arthur Schools, near Artesia, bought two electric buses after getting nearly $800,000 from the fund, but other districts awarded federal money have struggled. 

 From the report on the School Bus Modernization Act 12.13.2023

Santa Fe Public Schools was one of the first districts to move towards switching to electric buses, but the change has been a challenge, said Chief Financial Officer Robert Martinez. 

Santa Fe has had trouble with reliability, he said. “We’ve had buses in our fleet for a year or more that we haven’t been able to use because they don’t work,” Martinez said. 

According to Martinez, SFPS wanted to be a model district to pave the way for other districts to switch to electric buses, but technical problems have gotten in the way. 

“It’s been tough because when a bus is down, you have to consolidate or cancel routes. It impacts kids getting to school and impacts families that may rely on the transportation available by public education,” Martinez said. 

The state may have time to work out some of the kinks in the funding before any more federal money arrives. The White House announced $1 billion more in Clean School Bus funds this month, but no New Mexico districts were among the awardees.

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