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A Drive for Clean Rides

Volkswagen’s dirty deeds could mean cleaner school buses in Maryland

     Now that school is open, drivers have plenty of behind-the-bus time to consider whether these yellow icons are ready for a makeover.
     Would you rather idle behind a diesel bus or an electric one? 
     If your answer is electric, you’ve got an intuitive grip on the Maryland League of Conservation Voters’ Clean Buses for Healthy Niños campaign.
     The campaign targets “our aging fleet of toxic diesel school buses” for upgrades. Moving to “zero-emissions electric buses will clean the air in our communities, bolster the fight against climate change and protect the lungs of the 623,000 kids who ride buses every day,” says Ramon Palencia-Calvo, Maryland director of Chispa.
     Chispa, Spanish for spark, is part of the League’s outreach to the growing number of Latino voters. 
     Clean Buses is a campaign with ready money: Maryland’s $75 million share of the Volkswagen settlement fund.
     The settlement money, which the state will receive via an environmental mitigation trust fund, is the penalty Volkswagen is paying for using faulty software to cheat federal emissions tests.
     The carmaker agreed to settle lawsuits by spending up to $14.7 billion for remediation of nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles. Most of the settlement is set aside for buying back or modifying Volkswagens, but the company is also investing $2 billion in support of zero-emission vehicles. States share an additional $2.7 billion, based on their proportion of cheating vehicles sold, for investment in clean transportation programs.
      Each state chooses its own programs. So the Clean Buses campaign is directed to Gov. Hogan and state decision makers.
     “We’re calling for the money to be reinvested in school districts, especially those in low-income and communities of color where people are most at risk of breathing dirty air and suffer from exposure to pollution,” says Paencia-Calvo.
      Will the decision makers heed the call?
     In the short term, electric school buses are expensive, adding a premium of $100,000 to $120,000 to the price of a typical diesel school bus.
     But they pay off in benefits over time.
     First, they’re cheaper to operate. Each bus accounts for $11,000 annual saving in fuel. The savings increase as fuel prices rise, as in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. For a school district such as Anne Arundel, where nearly 700 buses are on the roads for much of the day, five days a week, the savings would be significant, given the route mileage per bus annually is just under 20,000 miles.
     Environmental benefits include less noise pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions, even factoring in the emissions from the electricity used to power them. 
      Eight of Maryland’s school districts rank among the top 100 largest bus fleets in the nation. Many of these districts contain large populations of low-income families, an important element in Chispa’s campaign.
      “We see this from an equity perspective. Environmental issues — air pollution, water pollution — tend to affect low-income communities disproportionately,” says Chispa's Johana Vicente. “Latinos are more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino whites.”
      All this — including the benefit to kids everywhere — gives you lots to think about in the months you and school buses share the roads.