Something's Missing in the Coverage of Phoenix's Exciting New Electric School Bus

State Senator Rebecca Rios touted the benefits of electric school buses at an event last week.
State Senator Rebecca Rios touted the benefits of electric school buses at an event last week. YouTube

Last week, to celebrate a local school district's acquisition of an electric school bus, a special event called "Let's Get Rolling" was held where children and adults were able to check out the bus and meet promoters of the new EV technology.

Local media had fawningly covered the bus a week earlier.

But in all the excitement, the hosts of the event and the press coverage about the bus got a variety of facts wrong and left out an important feature of the high-tech vehicle: its exorbitant cost.

Here's what you didn't find out if you attended the event or saw recent news coverage of the bus:

* The price of the bus was $429,000 — more than three times the cost of a conventionally fueled, full-size school bus.

* Organizers of the July 15 "Let Get Rolling" event claimed that such a vehicle's lower fuel and maintenance costs would save a school district $115,000 over the lifetime of the vehicle. But a 2019 report states literally the opposite: that electric school buses, for now, actually cost $115,000 more than a new diesel bus over their lifetimes.

* The state determined three years ago that due to the high cost of electric school buses and the fact that new diesel engines are relatively clean-burning, replacing old school buses with only electric buses would actually be worse for the air.

* The 84-passenger electric Blue Bird bus acquired by Cartwright Elementary School District with state and federal assistance is not the state's first electric school bus, as reported by the district and two TV news stations. That honor goes to a smaller bus acquired by the Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD) in January 2020.

None of this means electric school buses don't have a bright future. An electric bus doesn't emit pollutants, meaning kids who stand near it won't be breathing in exhaust fumes that are especially prevalent in older diesel buses. Electric buses also cost less in maintenance and save money on fuel. They're quiet. But they're not yet ready for mass adoption by cash-poor school districts, even with subsidies. The news media and bus boosters have done a poor job explaining the problem to the public in the last few weeks.

Let's Get Rolling event flyer

AZFamily/KPHO (Channel 3 and 5), KTAR-FM radio (92.3 FM), and Fox-10 News covered the unveiling of Cartwright's bus in early July, reporting that it wasn't easy to get the bus — it took years of applying for federal grants, pushing for school bond money for it, and finding storage and charging options. None of the three mentioned the key factor of cost. A spokeswoman for the bus event confirmed to Phoenix New Times that organizers haven’t had any recent questions from reporters about the cost.

The Cartwright and PUHSD buses were acquired with the help of the national Hispanic environmentalist group Chispa, which launched its Clean Buses for Healthy Niños campaign in 2018 to take advantage of money distributed in the $10 billion Volkswagen diesel fraud settlement.

A July 2019 article in the Arizona Republic on the work by Chispa and South Mountain High School track students to acquire an electric school bus mentioned something about the vehicles' cost but didn't quite get it right: "Although an electric school bus can save money in the long run with lower fuel and maintenance costs than a diesel bus, it's the upfront sticker price that deters districts. An electric school bus could cost twice as much as a diesel school bus."

In fact, the price of a full-size electric school bus is usually about three times the cost of a comparable diesel school bus, Albert Burleigh, director of EV sales for Blue Bird told New Times.

An average diesel school bus costs about $110,000. Burleigh said that different factors would influence the price of an electric school bus in Arizona, but it would likely run between $300,000 and $350,000.

Cartwright's bus cost more than the base price because it came equipped with upgraded air-conditioning and seat belts, the district explained.

The triple-the-cost estimate is mentioned in an August 2019 article by AZFamily/KPHO about the effort to acquire an electric bus by South Mountain High School students, but that article follows the cost estimate with some more positive news: "However, an electric bus has a projected savings of $115,000 over its lifetime, saving approximately 80% on fuel and 80% on maintenance."

It's unclear from the article where AZFamily got the $115,000-in-savings figure. Burleigh said it didn't come from him. But the press release for the "Let's Get Rolling" event used it: "Just one electric bus will save the city $115,000 over its lifetime on fuel and maintenance." When asked where the host groups got the stat, Santa Cruz pointed back to the 2019 AZFamily article.

In fact, a July 2019 report by the Washington D.C.-based think-tank Atlas Public Policy states just the opposite. Using research created for California's state government, Atlas' report says that by 2030, using only a state subsidy, "an electric school bus TCO [total cost of ownership] is expected to be $115,000 higher than diesel alternatives."

That's not true of electric city buses, which "in some cases" may recoup their higher upfront cost. But because electric school buses cost three times as much as typical school buses, and because they clock a lower annual mileage compared with public transportation buses, their TCO "is less favorable," the report says.

The report notes that "reduced exposure of children to harmful pollutants is a key benefit of this technology," which is why the high school track team and other students would like to see school bus fleets make the switch to electric. The good news is that rapidly improving technology and a higher production volume are expected to bring down costs over time.

The big part of the cost is the buses' batteries, Burleigh said. "That's the biggest obstacle, not range or performance."

But he acknowledged that for school districts, cost is the biggest hurdle. Blue Bird sold 250 electric buses last year — a small percentage of its total output of 10,000 school buses, but the venerable U.S. school bus company doesn't consider EVs an experiment. The company briefly produced a line of electric school buses in 1994, selling 36 of them, but has been producing a much more modern version since 2018, Burleigh said.

"The bus we build today is very viable," he said. "It has all the health benefits. Zero pollution. It's quiet."

About half of the buses Blue Bird produces now are diesel-powered, while most others run by burning gasoline, propane, or natural gas. But as costs come down by 2030, Burleigh predicted, nearly all of the school buses built by Blue Bird would probably be electric.

Even if that happens, it will take many years more before the country's entire fleet of school buses was electric. But the results for the air and public health could be dramatic. If all 480,000 school buses in the country were electric, it would save 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, and save $3 billion yearly in fuel costs, according to a 2018 study commissioned by Environment America. Locally, school buses are contributors to air pollution in the Valley, which has some of the worst air in the country, so going electric, in theory, could help the region meet federal standards. An electric school bus also has the immediate benefit of not belching diesel fumes into the lungs of nearby schoolchildren.

For now, though, the harsh reality of the higher cost of electric school buses can't be discounted. Three years ago, as Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services reported for the Associated Press, Governor Doug Ducey — at the advice of aides — chose not to go electric when creating a plan to subsidize the replacement of the state's older diesel school buses because it would have meant more pollution.

The 2018 plan about more than 280 buses with $38 million of settlement money from VW, which scammed the public with fraudulent software that made its cars appear less polluting than they were. Low-income school districts and the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind were given the opportunity to replace buses that were more than 15 years old at no cost to them. Some of the funds for the electric school buses acquired by PUHSD and Cartwright elementary came from the VW settlement plan. But Ducey's office did the math and determined that buying three times as many new diesel buses than all-electric ones for the same money would result in 36 percent less overall pollution released into the air, Fischer's article states.

In other words, with a limited pool of money, buying a bunch of new diesel school buses is, for now, still better than buying just a few electric ones, because the latter option would leave too many old, high-polluting vehicles out there.

Electric school buses may indeed be the future in Arizona and everywhere else. But they can't meet their promised benefits until the cost comes down.

(Update: Cartwright's statement about seat belts and AC for the bus, explaining why it cost more than a base model, was added later to the article.)
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern