Greening the fleet

Chico Unified gets grants to replace school buses, add electric model

Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bultema shows one of Chico Unified’s newer school buses, much like ones on order.

Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bultema shows one of Chico Unified’s newer school buses, much like ones on order.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

When students wait on a street corner for their school bus, sometimes they’ll hear the arrival before spotting the big yellow vehicle. Buses, which traditionally are powered by diesel fuel, can be loud and obnoxious.

Imagine a bus so quiet, no one may realize it’s approaching; so quiet that it’s equipped with an audio amplification system programmed with noises like a trolley car, just so it’ll emit running sounds.

School bus manufacturer Bluebird makes such a model—an electric bus, newly released. North Staters will soon find out how quiet it is, as Chico Unified School District has one on order.

This new bus will help CUSD reduce two types of pollution: noise and air.

“It’s going to be basically silent,” Transportation Manager Bob Ontiveros said. “This is another advantage [beyond emissions and efficiency]—the ride will be a lot quieter.”

The electric bus is part of a nine-bus upgrade for the district, with much of the costs covered by grants. In the next several months, Chico also will roll out eight new diesel buses.

CUSD received a grant administered by the North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District to purchase the electric bus and related infrastructure, such as building a charging station. Chico, along with 24 other districts, was selected from more than 400 applicants statewide. Other local recipients include Palermo Union and Oroville Union High school districts.

The grant award is up to $400,000 for the bus and $5,000 for the infrastructure—that will cover most of the cost, but will require an additional $3,000 to $4,000 from CUSD coffers. The board approved the purchase in June. The bus should be delivered by December 2018, according to Ontiveros, once it’s completed.

The electric bus will be the first of its kind for the school district. Chrystal Ales, the air quality district administrator who’s overseen Chico’s grant, said CUSD’s aging transportation helped earn the grant. In demonstrating need, Ales explained, “they chose their oldest bus with the most miles on it. It was a 1987 diesel bus with over 400,000 miles.”

The goal of the grant, known as the Rural School Bus Pilot Project, is to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by helping districts accelerate the process of turning over their fleets. This program has a budget of $10 million and gives priority to rural areas that have less access to funding. The California Air Resources Board partnered with the air quality district—which serves Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties—on the grant project.

“We’re rural, and we understand what the rural schools have to deal with,” Ales said.

Older buses produce twice as much pollution as a semi-truck, Ales said. The pollution poses a significant health risk for children since their respiratory systems are still developing.

The state air resources board, part of the California Environmental Protection Agency, funded three studies that examined school bus passengers’ exposure to air pollutants. According to the agency, while students sit inside a diesel-fueled bus, pollution leaks into the cabin.

“It’s not good for the kids, the environment or the drivers of the buses,” Ales said, noting the emissions from older buses especially.

The new bus will be “zero emissions,” meaning that it will add no more pollution to the air since it’s electric.

Kevin Bultema, assistant superintendent for business services for CUSD, said the district is looking forward to having an electric bus as part of its fleet, which he described as “very old” and “outdated” overall.

“It was a great opportunity that the cost of a full bus was going to be provided, and we think it’s going to be good for the environment,” he said.

The district already has picked out the route: It will make stops at Little Chico Creek Elementary, Chapman Elementary and Chico High School.

The electric bus can get 100 miles per charge. The district plans to charge it midday so it can extend the bus’ daily mileage.

CUSD had its choice of manufacturers. Ontiveros said the district chose a Bluebird bus because of the company’s reputation for making buses. CUSD already has diesel buses from Bluebird.

In the past, Bultema said, Chico Unified didn’t have the funding to replace its buses. But since the economy started to improve, the school district can dedicate more to that effort. Grant funding from CARB helped with purchasing the diesel-fueled buses, too, Ontiveros said: Of the $175,000 price tag for each, grant money is covering $84,000.

Chico’s replacement buses—expected to arrive this November—will have greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions to meet current standards, Ontiveros confirmed. As a bonus, they will offer WiFi access.

Rural schools can have some of the oldest and dirtiest buses, Ales said. In Chico, Ontiveros said, the average school bus is 15 to 16 years old.

The Rural School Bus Pilot Project grant allows districts to choose an electric bus, a hybrid bus or a bus that uses renewable fuel—Ales said the electric bus option has been the most popular option.

“We’re excited for the opportunity,” Bultema said, adding that by leveraging both grants, “we’re going to be able to turn over almost 30 percent of our fleet.”