New York wants its city, school bus fleets to go electric. How much could the plans cost?

Thomas C. Zambito
New York State Team

Sixty electric buses will be deployed to parts of New York City with high rates of asthma and air pollution in the coming months amid a statewide push to get more green vehicles on the road.

“We know that buses are engines of equity and it is an MTA priority to bring electric buses to environmental justice communities most impacted by climate change and pollution,” MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said last week.

They will join 15 electric buses already cruising city streets, becoming the second installment in the MTA’s commitment to transform its 5,800-bus fleet to zero emissions by 2040.

And earlier this month, the Hochul administration announced that in November voters will be asked to approve a $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act that includes $500 million for electric school buses in districts across the state.

Under the state’s plan, all new school buses will be electric by 2027, and by 2035, all of the state’s roughly 50,000 school buses will be zero-emission. Fill-ups and oil changes will be replaced by trips to charging stations.

New York also joined 15 other states insuing the U.S. Postal Service Thursday over its plan to replace its fleet with thousands of gas-powered vehicles. The states argued the environmental review process preceding the move was flawed, and that the vehicles could cause environmental harm for years to come. 

During an Earth Day event at a Manhattan bus depot last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul called on voters to back the Bond Act and connected school bus funding, calling it a  “game-changer” that will give the state “the resources to take care of Mother Earth the way it should have always been taken care of.”

But as the glow from the kickoff events began to fade, MTA and school officials found themselves pondering a sobering list of questions.

“There’s a widespread impression that going zero emissions is just a little like going to the Tesla dealer instead of going to the Chevy dealer,” Lieber said at a Wednesday board meeting of the MTA. “Actually, switching to electric from diesel and even to less-polluting compressed natural gas and hybrid buses is an enormous undertaking we need as a board to understand.”

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How much will this effort cost?

Heading the list is cost.

The average electric bus costs roughly 60% more than a diesel bus, MTA officials say. A Columbia University study says electric buses cost roughly $300,000 more per bus than diesel. Electric buses used during a pilot program in the White Plains schools cost $365,000 each compared to $110,000 for diesel.

The MTA has budgeted $1.1 billion in its current capital plan to buy 500 buses in the coming years. And Lieber says the MTA will be asking the federal government for $100 million toward its next phase of bus deployments.

MTA officials worry about whether there will be enough qualified manufacturers to support their overhaul. The MTA operates 10% of all buses in the U.S. and carries 14% percent of the nation’s bus passengers.

Once the buses are delivered, they will need to retrain 12,000 drivers and 3,500 mechanics.

And then there are the 28 depots in New York City that will house and charge the buses when they’re not in service. Many are over a century old and may not have ceilings high enough to charge an electric bus. They may need to be retrofitted or rebuilt.

And when the buses get hooked up to a charger, will there be enough power to keep them rolling throughout the day?

The MTA estimates that it will take an additional 370 megawatts of power – enough to light nearly 200,000 homes – to power its bus fleet.

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Gov. Kathy Hochul during a press briefing in Manhattan.

School officials will confront many of the same issues over the next five years and beyond.

Districts in rural counties will need buses with enough battery capacity to last through runs that are longer than urban routes. Will they need to create charging stations mid-route?

And, again, there’s the cost.

School officials say the $500 million, if approved by voters, will be a good start but not nearly enough to cover costs. Brian Cechnicki, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials in New York, has been studying the issue so he can offer advice to his members.

“It is important to note that Transportation Aid is reimbursed on a one-year lag and requires a local share for all school districts, so even with this aid, many districts will face challenges in managing the upfront costs of the basic infrastructure, the actual buses, and the increasing power needs, as well as the ongoing local share of these costs,” Cechnicki said.

They are questions likely to be aired at school board meetings in the coming years, forcing school officials to make some difficult choices.

Lawmakers who have been pushing for the overhaul say more federal and state money will be needed to supplement the $500 million investment.

State Senator Pete Harckham boards the BEAST (Battery Electric Automative Student Transportation) from GreenPower Motor Company during an informational event at Fox Lane High School in Bedford March 7, 2022.

“I would consider this a robust down payment,” said State Sen. Pete Harckham, D-Lewisboro. “What we really need to do is access various pots of money as we really change our transportation system.”

Schools in disadvantaged communities can also tap into $12 million in funding from the truck voucher incentive program, which is supported by money from the state’s share of a settlement with Volkswagen.

Environmental advocates say the cost and early growing pains will be worth it.

Children's health a factor in bus switch

The BEAST (Battery Electric Automative Student Transportation) from GreenPower Motors Company was introduced to students, administrators, state leaders and advocacy groups at an electric school bus informational event at Fox Lane High School in Bedford March 7, 2022.

A League of Conservation Voters study published in 2018 documented the public health and environmental impacts of diesel pollution, noting how diesel exhaust was worse inside the cabin of a school bus.

Their research cited a state comptroller’s report which found that asthma costs taxpayers $1.3 billion every year. “The number one cause of absenteeism in New York is asthma, much of which is related to air pollution,” said Julie Tighe, the league’s president.

Districts will save money they used to spend on fuel and oil changes. And as the technology evolves it will become cheaper, Tighe said.

School buses typically run in the morning and afternoon, enabling charging overnight and during the day. And the average school bus gets 70 miles per charge.

“Making these commitments also sends a clear market signal to the manufacturers that are building the electric buses, both for school buses and for transit buses, that there’s a serious interest, which I think will drive more competition and help to bring down costs,” Tighe said. “We’re seeing that now on the car side.”

Thomas C. Zambito covers energy, economic growth and transportation for The USA Today's Network's New York State team. He can be reached at Tzambito@Lohud.com or on Twitter at @TomZambito"