The Biden administration recently announced a $1 billion injection into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean School Bus Program. It marked the second phase of funding for the program, totaling nearly $2 billion, and is slated to fund approximately 5,000 electric and low-emission school buses nationwide.
The rollout of buses partially related to that funding recently began in Baltimore.
It’s been a few days since a ribbon cutting ceremony took place unveiling 25 electric school buses for Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS). Around that time, Duncan McIntyre, CEO of Highland Fleets, McIntyre was back in Massachusetts. That’s where Highland, a fleet electrification provider, is HQed.
Despite the distance, McIntyre recalled the ribbon-cutting atmosphere in Baltimore as both positive and uplifting. He mentioned the presence of key figures working to bring cleaner and more efficient transportation solutions to fruition in Charm City.
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“The Vice President’s Office sent one of their senior leaders [who] read a letter from Vice President Harris, which was really powerful. The EPA had a local leadership there,” said McIntyre, who has been working on this project with the city since last April. “And so, it was really a good acknowledgment of what can be done when public-private partnerships get together; and the power of … all the planning and all the efforts that everyone put in.”
Highland Fleets has focused on energy, equipment and solutions for transit fleets since 2019. The company has a primary focus on improving the environment and eliminating the upfront cost and complexity associated with transitioning to electric school buses.
“We’re paying for everything,” said McIntyre. “The chargers, all the underground infrastructure, all the contractors that do the permitting and the construction. We’re paying for the buses themselves that federal grant ended up covering a large chunk of the cost on. We pay for the balance that’s not grant-funded. And then we wrap all of those costs into a performance-based contract and sort of get paid periodically over the course of 12 years as the buses operate successfully.”
McIntyre said he was joined at the Baltimore ribbon cutting by a number of his employees who are based both in Maryland and Boston.
“We have fleet techs in particular who are kind of there on a day-to-day basis,” said McIntyre, who also mentioned that Highland has other projects in the state. “They help troubleshoot any issues with the charging stations. They work on the hardware and interoperability with the buses and they support the local leaders at Baltimore City to make to make sure the fleet runs smoothly.”
The project already replaced several diesel-powered buses and will serve an initial group of 350 students daily in Baltimore City. McIntyre said the 25 new school buses are full-size, have wheelchair lifts and are, by his standard, the best the busing industry has to offer.
The buses are also built almost entirely from the ground up even though, according to McIntyre, older diesel buses could retrofitted.
“It’s not a great investment to put all this modern technology into an old bus,” said McIntyre.
According to him, the reality is that BCPS sends buses to the scrapyard every year for various reasons. For instance, buses could accumulate rust or fail inspection. That’s why he said Highland likes to advocate for cities like Baltimore to replace buses and look at electric vehicles as an alternative.
There’s no plan for a transition to cleaner city-run buses, at least not with Highland Fleets as the bulk of Highland’s contracts are with schools. An existing clear hybrid and diesel effort exists through the Charm City Circulator initiative.
“School bus electrification has, in many ways, grown a lot faster than city busing,” he said. “Some cities have adopted electric city busing at scale, but most have just piloted and tried, you know, one bus or two buses. And schools have, in many ways grown a lot faster.”
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