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Electric School Buses in Richmond: Progress Not Perfection


by A Siegel

The legislative session is about to close in Richmond. Lawmakers are working late hours. Deals are being cut. Good bills are being left on the table amid the end of season rush. And …

Virginia is on the cusp of becoming a national leader in electric school buses (ESBs). Dominion has announced plans for a major program, en route to providing 100% ESBs in its service area, and has already initiated the first 50 ESBs with participating school districts. Governor Northam has taken portions of the VW diesel settlement fund for a small ESB demonstration program. The legislative session had multiple ESB bills in play.

At this time, the last one standing seems to be HB75 with Senate and House conferees announced earlier today.

Upfront, to be clear, even as it has weaknesses,
this legislation should be supported.
It helps move Virginia down a better path
with multiple benefit streams.
It is progress, not perfection

Delegate Kory’s original HB75 might best be described as having been a legislating of Dominion’s desired program. Since then it has been amended in ways that could enable local school districts to wrest some power away from Dominion but which likely will leave Dominion in the driver’s seat. The bill would open the door for Dominion’s demonstration project of 1,000 ESBs over the coming five years.

In short, HB75 would enable Dominion (the Commonwealth’s sole “Phase II Utility”) to move forward with an ESB demonstration project as “in the public interest”. Defining it, in law, as “in the public interest” limits the State Corporation Commission’s ability to provide oversight and restrict Dominion’s charging of ratepayers for the program’s costs. The bill will enable Dominion to ask for rate adjustments relative to ESB program costs.

Let’s be clear, ESBs have tremendous benefits for the public across multiple domains from improved student health to reduce noise on the streets. For ratepayers, the ESBs will help foster a more resilient and better operating grid. Thus, ‘charging back’ to the ratepayers isn’t necessarily a bad thing and reducing the SCC’s ability to do a stove-piped analysis that only considers ratepayer financial implications is probably in the general interest of all Virginians.

Looking at this legislation, there are several oddities that merit questioning and at least one merits change even at the last moment by conferees:

  • Seat belt mandate [UPDATE]: the legislation mandates (section F) a “lap-and-shoulder belt occupant restraint system” for any bus in the program. This is legislating a Dominion-created requirement that there is little-to-no assessment basis to support: studies, to date, have not shown this is a good public investment. The mandate should be removed and replaced with a requirement for the Virginia Department of Education to study passenger safety items for school buses to support a 2021 legislative decision on whether to mandate this for all (new) Virginia school buses.
  • 40 Percent: The program is limited to a maximum of forty percent of school buses procured by involved school districts in any specific year. There is, well, simply no good justification for this. Consider some scenarios:
    • This is a structure mandating, in essence, that school districts can’t determine that they want to go 100% electric school buses and do so via this program.
    • What if the most sensible set of projects, one year, is a set of smaller school districts which are each buying a small number (10? 15?) of buses. The 40% would, it seems, preclude these smaller school districts from buying in reasonable scale.
    • Thus, conferees — cross out lines 46-49 creating a percentage limitation on any year’s projects.
  • 2025 Sunset: The legislation (section [G]) sunsets the program as of 31 December 2025.
    • Sigh, when we should be mandating an accelerating path toward 100% ESBs, we are going mandate an end to the program? Really?
    • Honestly, what this really ties to is Dominion’s poorly structured plan for 200 ESBs per year through 2025 to then move to perhaps 1000 ESBs per year starting in 2026. That structure, honestly, is far from ideal nor is a legislating an end to the program.
    • However, 2025 is a long way away in electric vehicle years. The 2025 Sunset really is relatively meaningless as expanding and accelerating ESBs should (will) be part of the 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024, … legislative cycles. Thus, conferees, please ignore any complaints about this sunsetting provision. ESB proponents will, in any event, be back again and again and …
  • Absence of evaluation and reporting
    • HB75, as amended, has no provisions for assessing, evaluating, and reporting on ESB demonstration projects.
    • A simple reality, while it is clear that ESBs will provide significant (co)benefits, there is not truly robust understanding as to what these are and how significant they might be. (For examples and thoughts, see this discussion.)
    • The absence of an assessment requirement is a serious gap in the legislation. We don’t know what we don’t know. And, the legislation doesn’t provide guidance for filling the gaps in knowledge. As per above, the 2020 legislative session is far from the last time legislators will be dealing with ESBs. Created a learning process, to enabled more informed decision-making in the years to come, almost certainly would have tremendous value.
    • Conferees, if you can, consider adding in a statement requiring regular public reporting by involved entities (both the “Phase II Utility” and the involved school districts) with a requirement for the Virginia Department of Education to provide a consolidated ‘summary’ analytical report well prior (perhaps 1 October of each year) to the legislative session.

Is HB75 the electric school bus bill that the Virginia legislature could and should have fostered and passed? No.

Does HB75 merit passage as ‘progress’ (even as not perfection) toward safer, healthier, better performing, less polluting, and more user-friendly public school transportation? Absolutely.

The end of the session is hectic

Earlier today in Richmond, an ESB indication of the hectic nature of the end of session.  Senator Louise Lucas’ SB988 has been voted down twice in the House.  Here is Senator Lucas securing unanimous consent to pass it again in the Senate so, it seems, the House can vote ‘no’ yet again? Count me confused …


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