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Electric School Buses to Make Debut in Shelby County

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Electric buses are still more expensive to purchase than their diesel counterparts, but school officials say they save in fuel costs and are better for air quality and the environment.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools students are some of the thousands across the country who could be taking new electric buses to class in the near future as a result of money allocated from last year’s national bipartisan infrastructure bill.

A fleet of around 300 mostly diesel-burning buses currently shuttle school children around Memphis, but 17 of them will be replaced by more environmentally friendly models using $6.7 million in funding.

Stephen Wherry, deputy chief of business operations with the school district, hopes future grants will pave the way for more zero-emission vehicles.

An electric bus can cost around $400,000, or more than double the cost of diesel ones. But they also save in fuel costs over the long run.

Wherry says electric vehicle infrastructure also needs to catch up to make the transition.

“We just want to make sure that we have charging stations in appropriate locations where we’re going to be housing buses,” he says.

Another challenge will be mapping bus routes that can be completed on a single electric charge. The school district will also need mechanics trained to maintain and repair electric models.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools is one of hundreds of districts across the country that is receiving some of the $1 billion in federal money set aside specifically for new buses, as part of the Biden administration’s push to cut air pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Wherry says children in Shelby County are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality.

“We know a lot of our students might have asthma or other deficiencies that they’re dealing with,” he says. “So if we can provide cleaner air for these students and not complicate their breathing, I think these electric buses will help out tremendously.”

Wherry would like to see the new buses up and running on assigned routes by next school year but says there is no current official timeline for roll out.

Katie is a freelance contributor to WKNO. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org