Update: March 23, 2023. This story has been updated with Ysleta Independent School District bus route information.

A new initiative by the EPA is helping the Socorro Independent School District replace 25 of its diesel-engine buses with electric counterparts.

“We are extremely excited for the opportunity to invest in something as innovative, as new and as technologically advanced,” SISD Transportation Director Dexter Harman said. “We look forward to incorporating an electric fleet.”

 Most school buses are powered by diesel, which may harm the environment and the students riding them. The national Environmental Protection Agency program aims to replace 2010 or older diesel buses that need to be scrapped if replaced. 

“Because of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law … Socorro ISD will be receiving a historic investment to modernize their bus fleet, significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and limit exposure to harmful diesel emissions for our students, teachers, and staff,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso. 

In May 2022, the EPA earmarked $965 million for the Clean Bus Program that would be available for school districts nationwide for fleet electrification. In October, the EPA announced $50 million in funding for public schools in Texas to help 13 school districts purchase 144 electric buses.

“As many as 25 million children rely on the bus to get to school each day,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a news release. “This is just the beginning of our work to build a healthier future, reduce climate pollution, and ensure the clean, breathable air that all our children deserve.”

The grants awarded were the first $1 billion of a five-year, $5 billion program that prioritizes low-income, rural and tribal communities.  The Ysleta Independent School District also applied for the grant. However, they were waitlisted along with the El Paso Independent School District through the EPA’s lottery process to select recipients. Anthony, Canutillo, Clint, San Elizario, Fabens and Tornillo, the other six school districts in El Paso County, were not located in the awarded or waitlisted records for the grant.

The EPA reported that 2,000 applications were received for $4 billion in funding, four times their budget of  $965 million for the year.

SISD – which transports about 6,000 of its more than 48,000 students in 295 buses each school day – was awarded $9.85 million through the program for electric buses and infrastructure.

“About 30% of our fleet is nearing the end of its approved or approximated expected lifetime,” Harman said. “Over the course of the years, we try to replace the buses as we go so that we don’t have a large expense impact all at once.” 

Electric buses with a capacity of 71-77 passengers range in cost from $375,000 to $450,000, depending on their equipment. Non-electric buses cost about $125,000 to-$165,000.

“Originally, when these buses were taking off, the cost was outrageous,” Harman said. “It had a lot to do with the batteries. But over the course of the past seven or eight years, there’s been a lot of developments and that cost has come down.”

Most districts must choose between getting more diesel buses or the more expensive eco-friendly options. Harman said the grant allows SISD to experiment using the new technology without taking on a considerable expense.

“There’s very little risk as far as the initial investment that the district’s going to have to go out for,” he said, “The grant covered over 90% of the initial cost of the buses. We thought it’d be good to go ahead and take up an opportunity like this.”

SISD needs to replace 55 buses. The grant will cover the cost of 25 electric buses and charging infrastructure of up to $20,000 per bus replaced, which could be available in the district as soon as January 2024.

“The rules of the grants were very specific as to what we were able to replace,” Harman said. “We were only able to replace 25. They weren’t necessarily buses that were that old. It’s just there were certain engine lines and types of diesel buses that had to meet the criteria. The grant will not replace our current need.”

YISD Director of Transportation Rosario Fernandez on March 3 examines the boundaries of the school district where the bus fleet under her command transports 10,000 students to school. (Christian Betancourt / El Paso Matters)

YISD has a fleet of 216 buses that carry about 10,000 of its 36,127 students. About 20 of those buses need to be replaced. When YISD Director of Transportation Rosario Fernadez heard they were not selected, she learned if some of those chosen became ineligible or did not want to take the grant, the waitlisted districts would be contacted.

“We have not heard back from (the EPA),” Fernandez said.  

The approval of the grant would allow the district to purchase buses it might not initially consider purchasing within its budget.

Fernandez said that based on the condition of the district’s fleet, it would make more sense to purchase two buses instead of only one.

“We want to go greener and have a more sustainable future, but at the same time, we also have to (weigh) the cost in terms of what are our needs within the district,” she said.

Each year, districts re-examine the need for bus replacement and make recommendations to their board of trustees as the budget for the school year is revisited, said SISD Assistant Superintendent Andre Cruz.

Harman said SISD replaces its buses based on priority.

“One year you might not replace any. Maybe in the third year of year three, you might have to replace 20 of them,” he said.

The environmental benefits for the students, along with the reduced cost of fuel and maintenance, were added benefits, Harman said.

“Your fuel is gonna be the cost to actually charge the buses,” said Harman. “When you break it down, it costs about 80 to 90 cents to fuel a diesel bus per mile. Charging the electric, we’re looking at 15 cents to 25 cents a mile. We do anticipate major savings in the first year, having those 25 buses on routes. Over the course of the next couple of years, maybe then we can make a more permanent decision whether we’re going to pursue going with electric or staying with the diesel.”

Some benefits of an electric bus fleet for Fernandez are fewer emissions, low maintenance, and noise reduction. At the same time, she recognizes that major repairs of an electric bus can be costly.

“Better air quality also results in improved health for anybody and everybody,” she said. “You’re looking at savings in fuel and then oils. I think, on the flip end, batteries are pretty expensive. I think it was a pack of six to eight, and they don’t sell individual batteries. It’s about half of the cost of the bus.”

No school district is under any obligation or mandate to go green by a specified time period. However, this may change as more and more local, state and federal entities push for cleaner transportation efforts.

“I do see that there’s gonna be a bigger push after this,” Harman said. “There’s going to be more available grant monies over the course of the next four years. With that in mind, we’re going to closely monitor. I think at that point, we’ll make a recommendation if it’s feasible to go ahead and continue with the investment in electric.”

When electric school buses came to be, the exorbitant cost made it unfathomable for schools to consider. As the technology develops and more options are available. Fernandez hopes the initial price won’t be an issue.

“I would definitely like to see that in the future electric buses get to a point where prices are reasonable and districts are able to decide whether it’s more efficient to purchase an electric bus than alternative fuels,” she said. 

The fleet at YISD has more special education routes for a population that comprises about 30% of the total ridership, with general education encompassing the remaining 70%.

“For this school year 22-23, we started with 59 general education bus routes and 67 special education bus routes,” Fernandez said.

Public transport grants

In August 2022, Sun Metro, the public transportation entity in the city of El Paso, received $8.8 million from the Federal Transit Administration to invest in electric buses. The entity was selected from more than 500 public transit agencies in the United States as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The total grant amount was $1.66 billion for the 2022 fiscal year.

“These federal dollars for Sun Metro will make a profound difference in the lives of our customers who rely on paratransit services and who are presently served by an aging fleet,” said Ellen Smyth, the city of El Paso’s Chief Transit and Field Operations Officer in a news release. “Not only will the switch to zero-emission buses modernize our entire LIFT fleet, but it will also contribute to cleaner air in our region, allow us to train our workforce in operating buses with this new technology, and will create new jobs for drivers and service technicians.”

A Sun Metro passenger disembarks at Sun Metro’s South El Paso transit center. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

The city of El Paso matched $2.2 million for a total project cost of about $11 million. The project entails the purchase of 50 zero-emission paratransit vehicles, installing 25 electric charging stations, and hiring and training existing employees in the new technology.

Officials with Sun Metro have yet to respond to various inquiries about the project’s status and other questions.

“When a transit door opens, whether it is a bus, train, or ferry, it is a great equalizer for everyone in our nation,” said FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez. “With this tremendous amount of funding, the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law gives more Americans access to the opportunities that transit creates, more often, in more places. These investments also help us meet our goals of cutting transportation emissions, creating good-paying American manufacturing jobs, and helping America’s transit workers prepare for new vehicle technology.”

This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...