This story first appeared in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
Bella Patton was among a group of schoolchildren Thursday on the South Side who toured the new type of bus that will soon join the fleet of vehicles serving Pittsburgh Public Schools students.
While the big, yellow machine was nearly indistinguishable from other school buses on the surface, school officials and environmental advocates said the difference underneath could be beneficial for students who suffer from respiratory diseases and for the community at large.
“My asthma will get better!” Bella exclaimed after she walked off of the bus.
That’s because this bus runs on electricity rather than gas or diesel, meaning it will not release harmful fumes into the air as children ride it around the city.
The bus served as a preview of the 45 electric vehicles coming to the city as the result of a $40 million federal grant awarded to Pittsburgh schools transportation provider First Student. The electric buses will help remove more than 1,000 tons of greenhouse gasses from the air every year, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee said at a press conference at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union hall where she announced the funding.
“It’s not just pollution from extractive industries that cause these high rates of respiratory illness,” Lee said. “We know that automobile traffic and highway traffic — disproportionately [near] where Black and brown folks are most likely to live — are also huge sources of pollution. The single largest source of carbon emissions in this country comes from the transportation sector, and the toxins emitted from the tailpipes of cars have a disproportionately harmful impact on our community’s children.”
Lee encouraged more school districts to apply for Clean School Bus grants from the $965 million that the EPA has earmarked for the program utilizing funding from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The deadline to submit an application is 4 p.m. Wednesday.
This is the second round of funding that the EPA has made available through the program. The first $473 million was met with such an overwhelming response from applicants — many in underserved communities — that the agency decided to dedicate more money to the program.
The $40 million grant awarded to First Student will allow the company to purchase 100 electric vehicles, at least 45 of which will stay in Pittsburgh. The first group of electric buses that Pittsburgh will receive through the program should be ready at the start of the 2024-25 school year, according to Kevin King, a senior EV principal consultant with First Student.
King said that First Student already has 16 electric buses transporting Pittsburgh students. He said the company currently has just over 300 electric buses deployed across its network and is aiming for 30,000 on the road in North America by 2035.
“Every electric school bus on the road means reducing emissions, improving our air quality, and ensuring a healthier environment for all of the communities we serve in Pittsburgh and other places in North America as well,” King said. “As we move forward, First Student is steadfast in our dedication to innovation, sustainability and the wellbeing of our children.”
King said that compared to fossil fuel buses, electric buses save about 45% to 50% on maintenance and as much as 70% to 80% on energy.
While the school district and transportation company will appreciate cost savings, environmental groups said the impact the buses have on the health of students and the planet is most important.
Vanessa Lynch, a field organizer with Mom’s Clean Air Force, a nonprofit that fights pollution and climate change, said tailpipe pollution can lead to asthma attacks, interfere with lung development, contribute to cancer and reduce a child’s ability to learn.
Those illnesses can cause students to skip time in the classroom, negatively affecting their education.
“As parents of children with asthma know, a bad asthma day can lead to kids having to miss school and parents having to take off work to take care of them,” Lynch said. “With 1.4 million students across Pennsylvania riding school buses each day, electric school buses can’t show up fast enough.”
Lynch said she imagines future generations of kids who “no longer make loud engine noises when playing with toy buses or drawing dirty exhaust coming out of tailpipes when coloring.”
Similarly, Patrick Campbell, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, envisioned a time when neighborhoods will be free from the rumbling of diesel engines on school mornings.
“This isn’t about better health alone, it’s about transforming our communities into vibrant places that support a good life,” Campbell said. “Electric buses are quieter, reducing noise pollution in our neighborhoods. They’re more efficient, lowering transportation costs and dependence on fossil fuels. They’re a practical symbol of innovation, showcasing Pittsburgh’s commitment to a sustainable future.”
Billy Hileman, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said the school bus grant should be the start of a larger initiative by the Pittsburgh Public Schools to move to clean energy.
“This effort to keep diesel exhaust poisons out of the bodies of our children is only the beginning of what needs to be an aggressive transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels for our transportation and power generation needs,” he said, adding that the union has encouraged the Pittsburgh Public Schools and its transportation vendors to replace every gas or diesel-powered bus or van with electric vehicles.