SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City School District has received a second grant for the purchase of electric school buses, which means the school district will eventually be able to retire eight diesel-fueled buses.
The first buses are expected to arrive mid-March, said Ken Martinez, the school district’s transportation fleet manager.
“It’s such new technology for the school bus industry. We’re gonna be the first to have one, even in Utah,” Martinez said.
The school district has received two state grants from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality totaling more than $1.5 million funded by Utah’s $35 million share of the Department of Justice’s Volkswagen Clean Diesel Settlement.
A resolution sponsored by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, and passed during the 2017 legislative session urged that a portion of the funds allocated to the state from the Volkswagen settlement be used to “replace a portion of 433 dirty diesel school buses with clean-fuel school buses.”
The Salt Lake District applied for its first grant in November 2018, Martinez said. Although there is a growing availability of electric and hybrid passenger vehicles, “nobody even offered a production ready bus at that time so we were trying to get everything lined up and be at the front of the line. We’re getting them just as quick as humanly possible.”
The school district purchased the buses from a Canadian firm, but delivery of the vehicles has been complicated by supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Martinez has awaited delivery of the district’s first electric buses, he has reached out to school transportation directors elsewhere in the country that have them on the road to learn more about them.
“They say they pick up speed incredibly quick,” he said.
“Because they’re so quiet, believe it or not, we’ve got to attach a noise device to them,” so students and other drivers are aware of their presence,” Martinez said.
Drivers will need to go through a period of training on the new buses, which should be able to travel 100 to 120 miles between charges.
The buses will be indistinguishable from the other buses in the school district’s fleet, which totals 100 buses, the vast majority of them fueled by diesel.
Electric buses cost about $400,000 each while diesel buses “built to all of our specifications would come in right around $140,000,” he said. The grants do not cover the full cost of the buses.
School district officials believe that over time, the additional costs of electric buses will be recouped because they should require less maintenance, there’s no fuel costs and they will provide a form of transportation with far fewer environmental impacts.
“These first four, we got some routes in mind to run them in Rose Park area where we’ve got the dirtiest air in the state. So hopefully that’ll help us with that issue. We plan on running these all summer on the summer routes and utilizing the heck out of them,” he said.
The first electric buses will be able to carry 22 riders and will have air conditioning and heaters so they can be used year-round, he said. The second group of buses will carry 81 passengers.
Martinez said he is particularly excited to see how the electric buses handle traveling up Capitol Hill, the Avenues and east bench neighborhoods.
“We’ve got like a dual ABS (anti-lock braking system) already built in. They should stop phenomenally. We should hardly ever have to use a foot brake. So, I mean our maintenance costs on brakes and stuff like that should be on a sharp decline. Until you run them a few years you just never know,” he said.
Electric buses are the next evolution in student transportation and “we wouldn’t have been able to do it if we didn’t have the grant money available,” Martinez said.
When Martinez worked for the Jordan School District, it was the first school district in Utah to operate buses fueled by natural gas.
“We were the ‘go to’ for natural gas and that’s what I’m trying to do with Salt Lake. We’re going to be the ‘go to’ for electric vehicles. We will already have the infrastructure and so we should hopefully have a good chance of continuation on grants,” Martinez said.