The US government wants the future of mass transit to run on batteries. A slate of new federal initiatives to cut the carbon emissions from buses and trucks was announced by US vice president Kamala Harris on March 7. The programs include $1.1 billion in new funding to help cities and states purchase electric buses for their public transit systems, and $17 million for school districts to purchase electric school buses.
The new initiatives are among the Biden administration’s first steps to achieve ambitious environmental justice and climate goals laid out in the landmark Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation passed last November will hand out $1.2 trillion over five years to improve the nation’s roads and bridges, which the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a C- rating.
Yet the law also aims to modernize America’s transportation system by reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. Transportation experts have warned the infrastructure law could end up reinforcing the quo by devoting the majority of new spending to roads and highways. Since much of this spending will end up with state departments of transportation, it will be up to them to decide whether to fund highways or cut back.
But federal agencies are coming out early to use the dollars it controls directly to make major low-carbon investments. Of the $108 billion in new funding for public transportation, the largest in US history, electrification is a top priority.
In 2021, a Department of Transportation (DoT) grant program helped local transit authorities buy $182 million worth buy electric and other low-emission buses. This year, the DoT’s program will grow to $1.1 billion.
Dozen of US cities have already begun electrifying their bus fleets. In 2018, 21% of the US public transit bus fleet was either hybrid or electric, up from just 4% a decade earlier, according to the American Public Transportation Association (pdf). But new federal funding should accelerate this process. Federal grants funded electric bus purchases in almost every state last year, including $7 million for battery-powered electric buses in Chicago and $4 million for long-range electric buses in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
School buses make up the largest public transit network (pdf) in the US, but they have been slower to make the electric transition. Today, nearly 95% of the country’s 500,000 school buses still run on diesel fuel. Federal agencies plan to spend billions of dollars to add to the roughly 1,800 electric school buses currently operating or ordered by school districts around the country.
The Environmental Protection Agency is awarding localities $10 million for electric buses through a program targeting diesel emissions reductions and another $7 million from emergency funds through the American Rescue Plan. Later this year, the government will release the first tranche of $5 billion for school bus electrification in the infrastructure law to be spent over 5 years.
With this new announcement, the federal government has doubled down on existing funding for bus electrification in the infrastructure law, while proposing new rules for emissions standards for trucks and ports.