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School bus purchase perplexes Amherst councilors 

  • Children board school buses at Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

AMHERST — Amherst town councilors are debating whether to buy a new gas- or diesel-powered school bus for the Amherst public schools immediately or to put off the purchase until determining whether adding a second electric bus to the fleet is worthwhile.

At the center of the talks is the question of how soon reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be prioritized.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman told councilors Monday that the bus is considered emergency spending, and that $91,500 available in unspent money from previous capital items is available to cover the costs of getting the 71-passenger vehicle. However, District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont moved to postpone the spending out of concern that it would not move Amherst toward the 100 percent renewable energy goal adopted by Town Meeting.

The postponement means the council’s decision will be delayed until its meeting on Sept. 17 at 5:30 p.m., before a joint meeting with the School Committee.

DuMont initially proposed referring the matter to the Finance Committee to answer a series of questions that would give the council a better sense of the cost comparison between an electric bus and a diesel or gas bus, including life span, long-term maintenance costs and whether grants could be used to buy an electric bus, which for a 77-passenger model would cost at least $325,000.

But that was defeated by an 8-3 vote, with DuMont joined by District 2 Patricia DeAngelis and At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke in support. District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen abstained and District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz was absent.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said while she supports the concept of having the town and school vehicles be more green, she worried about delaying this purchase.

Bockelman said school officials need the new bus before winter to provide ample transportation resources. A bus recently broke down and repair costs are estimated at $30,000 or more.

But DuMont argues there is enough time to study whether an electric bus would be a better long-term investment, even though a 71-passenger gas or diesel bus would cost only around $87,305.

DuMont said there is evidence that an electric bus would have lower maintenance costs and grants might be available, including through a state program that aims to have all electric buses on the road by 2030.

She added that it is important to keep in mind the 100 percent renewable goal when every purchase is made.

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said he would prefer to have a plan for weaning the town’s fleet off gas and is concerned about the town dipping into the stabilization account again, noting that it has already used money from that for the Station Road bridge project and might use it in the purchase of Hickory Ridge Golf Course.

“Right now we need a bus — all we have money for is the bus,” District 3 Councilor George Ryan said.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said there should be studies of electric vehicles in the next capital plan.

Hanneke joined in support of DuMont’s request for more study to get a sense of the operational cost difference between gas and electric vehicles.

“I think we want that information — what way is more logical to spend money?” Hanneke said.

But District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she is concerned about the limited range of electric buses and that they are not flexible for field trips and sports teams.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said the Energy and Climate Action Committee could look for grants and opportunities for both vehicles and buildings.