Cost of electric school bus service in Amherst districts may be too much

Staff Writer
Published: 2/1/2020 12:38:06 AM

AMHERST — A nearly quarter-million dollar premium to have electric school buses pick up schoolchildren in Amherst may keep them from being used for the district’s transportation.

With a $225,000 bid from Five Star Transportation to add electric buses to two morning and two afternoon routes in Amherst, supplementing the conventional diesel-powered buses, members of the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees said this week they would be hesitant to appropriate the money in a new transportation contract.

Amherst representative Allison McDonald said sustainability should be a goal for the schools, but it’s uncertain if deploying electric school buses is the right approach.

“My perspective is to pass on this for now, but to figure out a way to devise that sustainability vision for the district,” McDonald said.

This was also the view of member Kerry Spitzer, who said the committees need to understand whether having electric school buses on a couple of routes is the wisest course of action for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Board member Peter Demling said the committees have to be responsible with scarce financial resources.

Five Star submitted the low bid for a new three-year transportation contract and was the only bidder to respond to the “request for quote” with the sustainability component. The advertisement developed by the district was, in part, a reaction to concern last September when the Town Council agreed to move forward with the purchase of a new diesel-powered bus, rather than try to add a more expensive electric bus to the school’s fleet.

Although electric buses have been seen as a possible choice for the district, Superintendent Michael Morris said one of the issues for the transportation contract is that few vendors are available to bid out bus contracts, with or without electric buses.

According to a memo Morris wrote, “If the School Committee chooses to include the supplemental option in the contract, Five Star anticipates that it will utilize two electric buses that will each make two morning and two afternoon runs per day. That means the electric buses will each cover two Regional and two Amherst routes daily.”

Morris said he wanted to place the option before the committees and make sure that a discussion with officials in Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett occurs.

“We’re very open to a conversation and the will of the towns if they want to participate in this,” Morris said.

Morris said he understands that there are differing views about the best approach to combat climate change. Some in the community, for instance, have advocated that a better way than using more electric school buses would be to reduce the number of people driving cars to the schools.

Andra Rose, who serves on the town’s Energy and Climate Action Committee, told the committee that the high cost to put electric buses into the transportation contract means there are probably more sensible ways to combat climate change.

“There’s options we’re not tapping here,” Rose said, observing that money from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, part of the settlement for Volkswagen’s violations of the Clean Air Act, could allow the schools to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles.

Pelham representative Margaret Stancer said the committees would likely have trouble selling the higher costs of the transportation contract to Pelham and other neighboring towns, since the routes would be confined to Amherst.

In his memo, Morris wrote that the sustainability add-on “is not the district’s top priority for use of funds if it means cutting other essential areas of the operating budget, such as elective classes or academic programs.” But he added that it would be less expensive than buying and maintaining electric buses and installing charging stations.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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