Bus Mileage, Gas Prices Challenge Counties
By Allyson Dickman
Capital News Service
Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008
WASHINGTON - School bus mileage and transportation costs continue to rise across Maryland, according to numbers tracked by an environmental organization.
The all-volunteer 1000 Friends of Maryland has tracked bus mileage and costs since releasing a report last year examining school transportation trends between 1992 and 2006.
"School districts are definitely continuing to pay more and having to cut back the bus service they provide," said Douglas Stewart, communications director at 1000 Friends of Maryland. "Across the board, rural areas as well as bigger suburban areas have seen significant, continued increase in cost."
Prince George's County transports about 85,000 students and its buses drive 22 million miles a year, according to John White, county spokesman. The county had the largest transportation expense increase, $61.9 million since 1992, 1000 Friends reported.
"It's been more of an increase in the past few years as everyone sees the gas prices go up," White said. "We've had to accommodate that increase by making budget cuts in other areas."
For the first time in 10 years, Prince George's County raised the price of breakfast and lunch to cover transportation costs. The county was also unable to expand programs as planned and eliminated vacant positions, White said.
Prince George's also condensed bus stops and uses a GPS system to monitor bus routes for efficiency. The county is looking into biodiesel fuel contracts, according to White.
Smaller counties are also taking hits with high gas prices. Caroline County and Kent County were the only counties to decrease bus mileage. However, Caroline County still saw expenses rise $1.2 million, while Kent County's expenses jumped $360,000.
"We've had a decrease in the number of students, but you still have to basically ride down the same roads that you had before," said Margaret Ellen Kalmanowicz, supervisor of Transportation and Food Service in Kent County.
Kent County's transportation budget has increased every year because of fuel, Kalmanowicz said. To help cut mileage, buses drive multiple routes, leaving some students riding for an hour and a half.
"Of course, we have to get students to and from school and have to take care of the special needs population," Kalmanowicz said. "So unfortunately, maybe some of the other programs in the budget have had to make adjustments."
In Wicomico County, where some students travel an hour to get to school, the budget has assumed diesel fuel costs of $5 per gallon, said Dave Reeve, supervisor of transportation for Wicomico County.
"Right now, no major changes have been made other than budgeting more money for fuel," said Reeve. "Time and miles - if you need to reduce the amount of money, you have to reduce the time and miles."
Wicomico is looking to provide more efficient services, including making students walk farther to bus stops.
"I don't want to say transportation is the priority, instruction is the priority, but how do you get to that instruction?" Reeve said. "School buses are economically and environmentally the best way to do that, rather than 4,500 parents driving their kids to school."
Montgomery County, which increased spending by $41 million according to 1000 Friends, converted 39 percent of its fleet to eco-friendly buses, helping reduce gas costs, said Kate Harrison, assistant director of Montgomery County's Office of Information.
"We just have a big county, it's 500 square miles," Harrison said. "We have a computer routing system that creates bus routes that are most direct and save as many miles as possible."
Sprawling development is the leading factor, said Stewart. He recommends preserving schools located in walking distance from communities, rather than rebuilding farther away.
"Right now it's much easier, unfortunately, to pave over farm and forest land than it is to build in already existing communities," Stewart said. "In a time of scarce dollars and fewer revenues coming in from taxes, it's imperative that we develop smarter."
Reeve said that the economic downturn and rising gas prices may have caused an increase in school bus riders.
Wicomico County experienced a 4.5 percent increase in bus riders, but enrollment increases at schools was not nearly as high, Reeve said.
"Is it because high school students who would normally be driving to school are riding buses instead of putting fuel in their cars?" Reeve asked. "Or is it because parents who would normally put kids in private school are putting them in public schools because of other economic issues in our society?"