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Children in seven environmental justice communities in Connecticut will soon be breathing fewer diesel fumes thanks to the latest round of state grants from the Volkswagen settlement funds.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection announced last month that the third round of Volkswagen funds will provide more than $9.5 million to help replace old diesel buses with 43 new electric school buses in Middletown, New Britain, Hamden, Stamford, Bethel, Ansonia, and Griswold.

That will bring the total number of electric school buses in the state to around 45, a small proportion of the roughly 8,000 total, but a welcome sign of progress, said Daphne Dixon, executive director and co-founder of the Live Green Network. The nonprofit spent the past two years holding “boot camps” to educate local officials on electric buses and how to go about working with bus companies.

“Adoption is a long road,” Dixon said. “It takes a lot of effort from a lot of different stakeholders — service providers, school districts, school boards.”

Funding for the buses comes from the federal settlement reached with Volkswagen after the auto manufacturer admitted in 2015 to installing devices in its vehicles that cheated emissions tests. Connecticut’s share of the settlement was more than $55.7 million; it has so far distributed about $31 million for use toward offsetting pollution.

The winning applicants this time are the bus service providers DATTCO, First Student, and Student Transportation of America.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection gave extra weight to applications benefiting environmental justice communities. Levels of fine particulate matter — an asthma trigger — can be up to 20% higher in those communities than in less densely populated parts of the state, Commissioner Katie Dykes said in a release announcing the awards.

Bryony Chamberlain, vice president of DATTCO’s school bus division, said the company proactively reached out to school districts in environmental justice areas, knowing that projects in those areas were favored.

“It’s an opportunity for us to expand our knowledge and abilities, with some assistance,” she said.

DATTCO is partnering with New Britain to replace four diesel buses, at a total cost of about $1.6 million, and with Middletown to replace six, for about $2.3 million.

The grants subsidize about 65% of the cost. 

“It’s not a commercial proposition without the subsidies,” Chamberlain said. 

It could take until October or November to get the buses on the road. “We need to upgrade the electric supply, install charging stations, and get the buses manufactured and delivered,” she said.

One complicating factor for school districts interested in electric buses is that, under the Volkswagen Diesel Emissions Environmental Mitigation Trust, which oversees the funds, applicants must show that they are replacing diesel buses from model years 2009 or older.

Speaking at one of Live Green’s virtual boot camps last year, Patrice Kelly, a senior environmental analyst in the energy department’s Bureau of Air Management, said the agency recognizes that “this can be challenging for towns with newer fleets,” but they are unable to change the rules. 

Only a few hundred buses are that old in Connecticut, according to Department of Motor Vehicles records, and some of those that are registered may no longer be operable, Dixon said.

Finding additional funding sources to electrify more buses will be critical if Connecticut is to meet its commitment under a 15-state memorandum of understanding to electrify 30% of all medium- and heavy-duty vehicles by 2030. Connecticut will need at least 2,400 electric school buses to hit that target, Dixon said.

It’s possible the state will commit some of the more than $5 billion in federal infrastructure funds it is scheduled to receive for school bus electrification. But Dixon and other environmental advocates were also counting on the proposed Transportation and Climate Initiative, known as TCI, to generate substantial and continuous funding for clean transportation investments. 

That regional cap-and-invest proposal, aimed at reducing transportation emissions, has fallen by the wayside for now, having failed to garner the necessary political support in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. 

At the same time, a recent greenhouse gas inventory found that transportation emissions in Connecticut are rising.

Dixon said her organization is meeting with municipal officials to explain the benefits of TCI in hopes of building enough grassroots support to revive the program in the future. 

“TCI would unlock the door to a lot of funding for electric school buses,” she said.

Lisa Prevost

Lisa is a longtime journalist based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." A native New Englander, Lisa covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.