By Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero | Published in the Albuquerque Journal

We live in the Land of Enchantment, but the air we breathe isn’t always crisp and clean. In fact, Bernalillo County regularly gets failing grades for air quality from the American Lung Association, and we’re hearing from residents that poor air quality is directly impacting their families and children. In Albuquerque neighborhoods where fleets of diesel buses idle to warm up each morning and a higher percentage of children ride the bus to school, families are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality and dirty diesel – with increases in respiratory diseases and even resulting in shortened lifespans.

We must do everything we can to make these neighborhoods more livable, and we have a huge opportunity in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s settlement with Volkswagen over its Clean Air Act violations. We should use a portion of New Mexico’s funds from the settlement to transition our state’s school bus fleet from dirty diesel to clean electric. It’s a true win-win for our communities, our families and our state.

I recently wrapped up a short legislative session at our state Capitol and was proud to sponsor a memorial bill urging Gov. Susana Martinez to use a portion of our state’s allocation of nearly $18 million from the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Fund for two purposes: the benefit of New Mexico’s K-12 public schools and protection of New Mexico’s environment and community health via the purchase and investment in electric, zero-emission bus fleets.

The settlement provides nearly $18 million in valuable funding to New Mexico that can be used to purchase new electric school buses or retrofit existing buses to meet zero emission standards. I strongly believe that this settlement provides us a unique opportunity to be a national leader on the issue of fighting diesel pollution.

While the settlement requires the funds to be used for air quality-related projects, using these funds to also address an important capital need for school districts will provide a second important benefit to our state. We must consider the practicality of using this money for new low-emission buses – a move that will save our state $11,000 annually on fuel and maintenance costs per new bus purchased. In fact, every diesel bus replaced with a zero-emission bus is the equivalent of taking 27 cars off the road.

This pollution can cause respiratory problems, including asthma attacks, which are the leading chronic illness and the No. 1 cause of school absences for children and adolescents. But, for the first time, we have a viable alternative – clean energy, zero-emission school buses.

Every day, when parents put their children on buses for school, they trust that the developing minds and bodies of their children will be safe. And approximately 166,000 kids in our state rely on buses to get to and from school. As a state, it is our responsibility to ensure that those buses are not harming our children with dirty air and cancer-causing pollutants. These school buses pass through virtually every neighborhood in the state at least twice per day, bringing concentrated pollution directly into our homes and neighborhoods, with low-income communities and communities of color carrying the heaviest burden of filthy air. Using these funds to improve the state’s school bus fleet will bring substantial health benefits for all New Mexicans.

Recently, I joined my colleagues state Sens. Linda Lopez, Mimi Stewart and Jerry Ortiz y Pino (all Albuquerque Democrats), state Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, and Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis in sending a letter to Gov. Martinez and the New Mexico Environment Department urging bold action, calling for these funds to be used for new and re-powered electric school buses throughout New Mexico.