Opinion: Bridgeport must act on clean buses

School staff help students boarding buses on a recent morning.

School staff help students boarding buses on a recent morning.

File photo

Last month, in New Haven, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law the Connecticut Clean Air Act. This legislation requires Connecticut’s school districts to transition to 100 percent zero-emissions (fully electric) school buses in districts that serve environmental justice communities by 2030, and requires all school districts in the state to phase out diesel buses by 2035. The act also sets aside $20 million to replace diesel buses. While this will only make a small dent in the number of diesel school buses in the state, it is a source of matching funds to leverage federal funding from the EPA Clean School Bus Program.

Bridgeport Public Schools is one of these districts that must complete the transition by 2030. Bridgeport is also a priority district to receive some of the half-billion dollars in funding the Biden-Harris administration has appropriated for clean school buses. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act made $500 million to replace diesel school buses available through the EPA with an expected additional $4.5 million appropriation over the next four years.

As a priority district, Bridgeport may be awarded funding for up to 25 zero-emissions buses and necessary charging infrastructure. At up to $375,000 per zero-emissions bus and up to $20,000 per bus for the charging infrastructure, that’s worth nearly $10 million. Electric buses cost roughly $350,000 and could be covered in full for priority districts like Bridgeport.

But capacity and staffing limits often lead to missed opportunities to seek such funding in the districts that need the money most. With the deadline for the first round of EPA Clean School Bus Program grants rapidly approaching (the deadline is Aug. 19), stakeholders fear Bridgeport could miss out without swift action from city officials and the school district.

Members of the Bridgeport community are advocating for Bridgeport Public Schools and its bus operator WE Transport to apply for the EPA grant with help from community partners. The Bridgeport Carbon Free & Healthy Schools Steering Committee, populated by invested residents, stakeholders, parents, school employees and city employees, is willing to assist in the application process to help Bridgeport secure a grant. A city of Bridgeport employee has offered to write the application on behalf of the district and environmental nonprofits in the region have also offered their technical expertise to districts interested in seeking this funding.

Understandably, there is a lot to consider as a district transitions to a zero-emissions fleet of vehicles. The EPA program aims to make it an easy lift for school districts with informational webinars, abundant online resources and a short application. The funding covers a full range of associated costs including charging equipment, design and engineering costs, and installation costs such as trenching, wiring and electrical upgrades, labor and permitting. The regular use of zero-emissions electric school buses can create substantial savings from fuel costs that can be used to fund infrastructure needs as the electric fleet grows.

As a community, Bridgeport residents should support efforts to reduce diesel emissions and ensure our children have cleaner air and a lower prevalence of asthma, allergies and congestion from diesel exhaust, especially on their way to school and while buses are idling in front of the school building. With the next round of funding five years away, Bridgeport cannot afford to miss this opportunity. We must encourage our local leaders to take advantage of this funding and the assistance available to seek it.

Now is the time to act. If we’re going to meet the statutory requirement of 100 percent zero-emissions school buses by 2030, then it’s going to take the efforts of all of us. Bridgeport cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity. Residents, parents and public officials of Bridgeport must get involved for this and other clean energy efforts like this to succeed. We must invest in our children in order to invest in our future as a community.

Mustafa Salahuddin is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1336, and a former Bridgeport school bus driver and transit bus operator outside of being a Bridgeport parent. He is also a member of the Carbon Free & Healthy Schools Steering Committee in Bridgeport and a board member of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs.