Assembly line workers at the Thomas Built school bus factory in High Point, North Carolina are over the moon about the new infrastructure bill—specifically Title XI, Section 71101. The line item that allocates federal funds for localities to purchase new, battery-powered school buses is hidden in the 2,702-page House approved document. That’s good news for Thomas Built, a subsidiary of German auto giant Daimler that controls nearly 40% of the North American school bus market. Chris Pratt (president of the United Auto Workers local chapter, and a 22 year veteran welder at Thomas Built plant), believes that the legislation will bring more jobs. “We’re all excited,” Pratt says. “This is something huge for us.”
The school bus provision accounts for a comparatively tiny $5 billion within the $1.2 trillion bill now awaiting the President’s signature. But for workers like those in High Point, and campaigners advocating to get rid of diesel fumes on childrens’ commutes, this new federal funding represents a turning point in a surprisingly significant industry that will affect communities across the country.
The U.S.’s approximately 500,000 school buses comprise the country’s largest public transportation network, moving 26 million children between school and home every day. That’s more than four times the New York City subway’s daily ridership ,all picked up and dropped off at farm houses, suburban developments, and city apartment blocks from Idaho to Alaska. Around 95% run on diesel. This accounts for over 5 million tons of annual greenhouse gas emission. Exposure to the exhaust fumes of buses has been shown to lead to poorer test scores, worsening respiratory health, and a lower tolerance for fine particulates. Children often inhale the most polluted atmosphere they have ever experienced, particularly when buses are idling along roads or in pick-up lots.
Johana Vicente (national senior director, Chispa), a Latinx-oriented branch of League of Conservation Voters in Washington D.C., said that those problems are most burdensome for low-income groups of color. Spurred by asthma and other health effects they saw among children, Chispa began that year to campaign to electrify the nation’s buses. “School buses were not necessarily part of the conversation at all,” says Vicente. “It was a very new topic that we were talking about.”
Soon, the membership in the electric school-bus movement grew to include organizations like Jobs Move America (progressive policy organization) and Sierra Club (sibling organization), united by a fairly unarguable case. It’s hard to produce electric versions of heavy vehicles, like long-haul trucks, due to their need for huge batteries, which weigh a lot and require long charging times. Electricizing school buses, which are large, fuel-guzzling machines, would not be difficult since they have limited range and plenty of charging time. Doing so would not only help the environment, but also directly impact children’s health—not to mention that the major U.S. school bus manufacturers were all already eyeing electric versions of their tried-and-true staples.
Although electric buses can be more costly than the diesel-powered versions, many low-income communities whose children need to commute to school faster are the least financially able to purchase newer models. Some states, like California and Maryland, have passed measures to help schools buy electric buses but the federal money from Biden’s infrastructure plan will make a huge difference nationwide. Battery-powered school buses account for less than 1% of vehicles in the U.S.’s half-million strong school-bus fleet, with just 1,164 electric versions either in operation or planned to be delivered, according to the World Resources Institute. The $5 billion infusion from the Biden Plan, researchers estimate, could bump up that number to about 10,000 within five years, though the President’s original March infrastructure proposal aimed to electrify almost 10 times that number of school buses, and the current funding would still leave bus makers cranking out many more diesel buses than electric ones every year (annually, U.S. bus-makers produce about 30,000 school buses per year, which are either directly commissioned by school districts or busing contractors, or sold through dealerships). However, the federal funding might still be sufficient for electric buses to begin to drop in cost as more vehicles are built and bus manufacturers get scale to purchase vital electric components such as batteries.
However, advocates claim that the new measures do not meet their needs. To start, that $5 billion number in the current infrastructure bill isn’t exactly as good as it sounds. The electric bus sector is not eligible for the $2.5 billion allocated. The $2.5 billion remaining is for so-called “clean school buses,” a broader category that includes buses that run on propane and natural gas—a head-scratcher for the climate conscious. Campaigners calling for the money to go to low-income schools districts are also concerned.
And though the federal funding may jump-start a nascent industry, it still barely makes a dent in the nation’s massive fossil-fuel-powered school bus fleet. The Clean Commute for Kids Act of 2021 (if ever it gets passed by Congress) would have a greater impact. Introduced by Alex Padilla, the junior Senator for California, in April, that legislation would allocate $25 billion for zero-emission school buses—enough to replace half of the U.S. fleet. However, the bill remains stuck in committee.
High Point workers believe that building buses is the most rewarding job you could have. Other jobs were available in the furniture or hosiery industries, but these businesses have moved their work overseas. There are still jobs at the textile businesses, but workers there can’t expect to make more than $10 an hour. The unionized school bus factory pays $17 an hour, and $27 for the top, with benefits. “It’s the best thing going,” says Pratt, the union president. “People come from hours away for these jobs.”
Those jobs attract more than workers—school bus assembly lines make good photo ops for politicians as well. Blue Bird’s school bus plant in rural Fort Valley, Georgia. has hosted visits from its local congressman Sanford Bishop and newly elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock in recent months, while Vice President Kamala Harris visited Thomas Built’s High Point plant in April. The lionshare in the US school bus market is $1.5 billion, which the two companies control together with IC Bus (a subsidiary of Wolfsburg-based Goliath Volkswagen). It is easy for politicians to see the benefits of healthy children and low-wage jobs. “It doesn’t matter somebody’s political background,” says Brian Alexander, public relations director for Lion Electric, a Canadian electric bus startup. “It’s just one of those universally-liked ideas.”
The promised jobs could be coming soon. Kevin Bangston, CEO of Thomas Built, says the company will be bringing on a “pretty significant” number of new hires in the weeks ahead, thanks in part to new demand spurred by the infrastructure bill. IC Buses executives say that they might increase production at the plant in Tulsa (Oklahoma). The representative of central Georgia’s district, Bishop, expects that the bill will create more jobs in bus building for his constituents. “It makes good environmental sense, and there’s going to be good economic investment,” he says.
The most important of these investments was in Joliet Illinois. Lion Electric, a hotshot newcomer to the industry, will invest approximately $70 million into a brand new factory for school buses. It is expected that it will open by the second half 2022. The facility is expected to employ approximately 1,400 workers. “That’ll basically increase our production capacity nine-fold,” says Alexander. “So we’ll definitely be ready to respond once the [federal] program’s in place.”
Globalization hasn’t been easy on Joliet. The city is located about 40 miles from Chicago and was home to the country’s second largest steel mill before it closed in 1980s. In 2019, the Caterpillar local plant, which employed around 7,000 people, closed. The area has also suffered from high unemployment for a long time than surrounding Will County. Doug Pryor, vice president of economic development at the Will County Center for Economic Development, says it’s easy to be disheartened by those losses, but that the new Lion Electric factory may be a game-changer. “Lion is a project that really represents that this region, and frankly the state of Illinois, can still compete in modern manufacturing,” Pryor says. “It’s a very big flag in the ground.”
At High Point’s Thomas Built factory, Pratt, the union president, says new positions can’t come soon enough—job demand has skyrocketed since a recent pay raise announcement, scheduled to take effect this month. “They pitched up the starting pay from $14.13 an hour to $17.21,” Pratt says. “And we’ve been flooded with applications.”