BARRE TOWN — Students in Barre and Barre Town and commuters in the Rutland area will be among the first beneficiaries of a pilot program designed to test drive transportation technology officials hope will one day sideline buses that rely on fossil fuels.
Shifting from “fill-er up” to “charge it” won’t happen over night, but electric buses could be rolling in three Vermont school districts — Barre’s included — as well as the Rutland-based Marble Valley Regional Transit District (MVRTD) by the end of the year.
Though the buses — eight in all — haven’t yet been ordered and their delivery date remains uncertain, their destinations have now been determined.
Chosen from a competitive pool of applicants, the “project partners” in the Vermont Electric Bus Pilot Program were announced during a brief ceremony held at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School on Thursday afternoon.
Even as a wave of school buses was pulling in to transport students home, Emily Boedecker, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, congratulated those chosen to participate in the two-year pilot project.
That list includes the two-town, three-school Barre Unified Union School District, the Champlain Valley School District and the Franklin West Supervisory Union, as well as MVRTD, popularly known as The Bus.
In a move that could signal the beginning of the greening of Vermont’s signature yellow school buses, each of the school districts will have two electric 77-passenger buses added to their fleets, while MVRTD will receive two battery-powered 40-passenger buses.
All eight buses will be purchased with a portion of Vermont’s Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust. The trust was established using the state’s $18.7 million share of a $2.7 billion national fund that was created to resolve claims Volkswagen violated the Clean Air Act.
Boedecker said the pilot program would help determine the feasibility of electric buses in Vermont, while “… Making sure that we keep our environment clean, reduce greenhouse gases and invest in innovative transportation technologies that can take us into the next century.
“It gives us a rare opportunity to actually invest in where we want Vermont to go,” she said, thanking the winning applicants for embracing the “chance to try this on for size.”
Boedecker’s sentiments echoed those expressed by Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, director transportation efficiency for the Vermont Energy Investment Corp.
VEIC will administer the pilot program and provide administrative and technical assistance each of the school districts, as well as The Bus in Rutland.
Wallace-Brodeur said the experimenting with electric buses was a good use of the VW settlement funds — one that would reduce “harmful greenhouse gas emissions” and potentially yield cost savings and health benefits for Vermonters.
“We think there is great potential with these vehicles and the pilot project is really designed to test out and prove those benefits,” she explained.
The procurement process for the buses hasn’t started yet, but Wallace-Brodeur said the six school buses would likely cost up to $350,000, while the two transit buses destined for Rutland would probably cost closer to $750,000 apiece.
Though Champlain Valley and Franklin West operate their own transportation system, Barre contracts for busing services with Student Transportation of Vermont.
In terms of the pilot program, that’s a distinction without a difference and charging stations for two buses will be installed in front of the school in Barre Town and one of them will be used to pick up Barre Town students and the other will be used in neighboring Barre.
Barre Superintendent John Pandolfo said he would like to see all students have an opportunity to ride the electric buses when they arrived.
Potential economic advantages aside, Pandolfo said he viewed Barre’s participation in the pilot project as “… an opportunity for innovative education for students, as well as the broader community.
“We encourage our students to compost, to recycle, to take care of their environment, and really this project represents another step in that direction of becoming stewards of our environment,” he said.
Ken Putnam, executive director of MVRTD, said he predicted the “next generation of transportation” would get a workout on Rutland’s varied terrain. That, he later explained, will include a regular run up the mountain to Killington, as well connector routes to Fair Haven and Middlebury.
In addition to putting “new clean technology” on the road in the Rutland area, Putnam said the project would provide valuable exposure for MVRTD mechanics and possibly lead to long-term savings.
Ethan Lyle, who attends Champlain Valley Union High School, described the pilot project as “bold and meaningful” and said its importance should not be understated.
“This is a monumental step in fighting climate change,” he said, noting he was pleased to learn his district had been selected.
Rep. Barbara Murphy, I-Fairfax, shared similar sentiments on behalf of schools in the Franklin West Supervisory Union.
Some of the project partners are more rural than others and Wallace-Brodeur said that isn’t an accident because the goal is to evaluate how electric buses perform in a range of typical Vermont conditions and different types of terrain.
“We have dirt roads, we have hills, we have winter,” she said. “We want to prove these buses can operate in a full range of conditions and really hope to … get people excited about electric buses and really see more electric buses on the road.”
In order to ensure a successful roll-out, VEIC will spend the next several months working with each of the project partners to purchase buses, acquire the necessary charging infrastructure and identify any facility upgrades that may be needed.
The delivery date will depend on a yet-to-be-selected manufacturer, though Wallace-Brodeur said it may be a year before they are ready.
Once the buses are delivered, VEIC will track and evaluate their performance for a full year, while providing technical assistance as needed.