Assembly line workers at the Thomas Build school bus plant in High Point, North Carolina, rejoice about a new infrastructure bill—specifically Title Eleven, Section 71101. Buried deep in the 2,702-page document approved by the House of Representatives last week, This line item allocates federal funds to help local areas purchase new battery-powered school buses. This is good news for Thomas Built, a subsidiary of German car giant Daimler that controls nearly 40% of the North American school bus market. And for Chris Pratt, president of the local United Auto Workers and a 22-year veteran of the Thomas Built factory, the legislation means one thing: more jobs. “We’re all excited,” Pratt says. “This is a huge thing for us.”
The $5 billion school bus allotment represents a relatively meager $1.2 trillion bill now awaiting the president’s signature. But for workers like those at High Point, and activists who advocate getting rid of diesel fumes on children’s commutes, this new federal funding represents a turning point in a surprisingly important industry that will impact communities across the country.
America’s nearly 500,000 school buses make up the nation’s largest public transportation network, transporting 26 million children between school and home every day. That’s more than four times the daily average ride on the New York City subway, all picked up and delivered at farmhouses, suburban developments and city apartment blocks from Idaho to Alaska. About 95% of those buses are diesel, accounting for more than 5 million tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions, and exposure to exhaust fumes has been linked to lower test scores and worse respiratory health for children, whose developing lungs are more susceptible. Irritation caused by fine particles generated by bus engines. Inside those buses, especially in traffic or in small car parks, kids often breathe the most polluted air they encounter throughout the day.
The burden of these health problems falls on low-income black communities, says Johanna Vicente, senior national director at Chispa, the Washington, D.C.-based Latin chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, driven by asthma and other health effects they’ve seen. Among children, that year Chispa began a campaign to electrify the nation’s buses. “School buses weren’t necessarily part of the conversation at all,” Vicente says. “It was a very new topic we were talking about.”
Membership in the electric school bus cart quickly swelled to include groups such as the progressive policy nonprofit Jobs Move America and the Sierra Club, united by a largely indisputable cause. It is difficult to produce electric versions of heavy vehicles, such as long-distance trucks, due to their need for huge batteries, which weigh a lot and require long charging times. But for large, fuel-intensive vehicles, electrifying school buses would be relatively easy, since they only need a limited range, and have plenty of time to charge them during the day or at night. Doing so would not only help the environment, but it would also directly affect children’s health—not to mention that the major US school bus manufacturers were all already looking to electric versions of their tried-and-true base materials.
But electric buses that are expensive (two to three times more to produce than diesel versions) and many lower-income areas whose children need cleaner commutes are also the least able to afford to upgrade their fleets. Some states, such as California and Maryland, have passed measures to help schools buy electric buses, but federal funds from Biden’s infrastructure plan will make a big difference across the country. Battery-powered school buses represent less than 1% of the vehicles in the half-million strong U.S. school bus fleet, with only 1,164 electric versions either in operation or planned for delivery, according to the World Resources Institute. Researchers estimate that a $5 billion injection from Biden’s plan could raise that number to about 10,000 within five years, although the president’s original infrastructure proposal for March aimed to supply nearly 10 times that number of school buses, and funding would remain. current left. Bus makers produce many more diesel buses than electric buses each year (yearly, US bus makers produce about 30,000 school buses annually, which are either operated directly by school districts or bus contractors, or sold through dealerships). But federal funding may be enough to start cutting costs for electric buses as more and more vehicles go off the line, and bus makers begin to realize economies of scale on critical electrical components, such as batteries.
However, the new measures are insufficient, advocates say. To start, that $5 billion figure in your current infrastructure bill isn’t as good as it sounds. Only $2.5 billion is earmarked for electric buses. The remaining $2.5 billion is earmarked for so-called “clean school buses,” a broader category that includes buses powered by propane and natural gas — a scratch-off for the climate conscious. Additionally, activists who want to distribute funds in a way that prioritizes lower-income school districts feel that the matter still needs to be settled.
And while federal funding may stimulate a nascent industry, it hardly makes an impact on the country’s massive fossil-fuel-powered school bus fleet. Another bill, the Children’s Clean Mobility Act of 2021, would have an even greater impact, if passed through Congress. Alex Padilla, a California senator, introduced in April that the legislation would set aside $25 billion for zero-emissions school buses — enough to replace half the US fleet. But so far, the bill is still stuck in committee.
At High Point, workers say building buses is one of the best jobs you can get these days. Another good job was in hosiery or furniture factories, before those companies packaged and shipped their jobs overseas in recent decades. There are still jobs at textile companies, but workers there can expect to earn no more than $10 an hour. At a union school bus factory, the wages start around $17 an hour and go up to $27, plus benefits. “That’s the best thing,” says Pratt, the union’s president. “People come from hours away for these jobs.”
These jobs attract more than workers – school bus assembly lines make good photo ops for politicians, too. Blue Bird School Bus Factory in rural Fort Valley, Georgia. It has hosted visits from local Congressman Sanford Bishop and newly elected Georgian Senator Raphael Warnock in recent months, while Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Thomas Build High Point plant in April. (The two companies, along with IC Bus, a subsidiary of Wolfsburg, German carmaker Goliath Volkswagen, control the lion’s share of the $1.5 billion US school bus market.) Combining healthy kids with blue-collar jobs is a no-brainer for politicians. “It doesn’t matter a person’s political background,” says Brian Alexander, director of public relations at Lion Electric, a Canadian electric bus startup. “It’s just one of those universally loved ideas.”
The promised jobs may be on their way. Kevin Bangston, CEO of Thomas Built, says the company will bring in a “very significant” number of new hires in the coming weeks, thanks in part to new demand spurred by the infrastructure bill. IC Buses executives say they may ramp up production at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, plant. Congressman Bishop, who represents the central Georgia region that includes Fort Valley, home of the 100-year-old Blue Bird bus factory, also expects the bill to bring more bus-building jobs to his constituents. “It makes sense from an environmental point of view, and it would be a good economic investment,” he says.
Perhaps the most significant of these investments will be in Joliet, Illinois, where industry newcomer Lion Electric will pump about $70 million into a new school bus plant, scheduled to open in the second half of 2022. Ultimately, the facility will employ about 1,400 local workers. “It will basically increase our production capacity nine-fold,” Alexander says. “So we will definitely be ready to respond at once [federal] The program is in place.
Globalization has not been easy for Juliet. Located about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, the city was once home to the second largest steel mill in the United States before the facility closed in the 1980s. The local Caterpillar plant that once employed about 7,000 people closed for good in 2019, and the city has long struggled with higher unemployment rates than the surrounding Will County. It’s easy to get frustrated with these losses, but Lion Electric’s new plant could be a game-changer, says Doug Pryor, vice president of economic development at the Will County Center for Economic Development. “The Lion Project really represents that this area, and frankly Illinois, can still compete in modern industrialization,” Pryor says. “It’s a very big science on Earth.”
At Thomas Bildt’s factory in High Point, union president Pratt says new jobs can’t come soon enough — job demand has skyrocketed since the latest salary increase was announced, which is set to take effect this month. “They raised the initial pay from $14.13 an hour to $17.21,” Pratt says. “We have been inundated with applications.”