Diesel cost squeezes school transportation

Longer routes, more passengers for Howard buses

August 10, 2008|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Fuel costs and a shortage of certified drivers will make this a trying year for transportation providers and the Howard County school system.

Soaring diesel prices have resulted in an $800,000 shortfall for the school system's Department of Transportation. As a result, the number of buses will be cut and buses will run longer routes with more students. Fuel prices are higher than the school system had projected last year when the Howard County Board of Education approved its budget. In September, diesel fuel cost $3.038 a gallon. Last month, diesel fuel cost $4.77 a gallon.

Officials hope to combat the shortfall by reducing the number of buses used and by increasing the number of students on each bus, said David C. Drown, director of transportation for the school system.

"The riding conditions will not be as optimal," he said. "We won't compromise on safety. We might compromise convenience and comfort, but we will not compromise safety."

Drown said route changes will be subtle and "invisible to most" parents and students. David Ramsay, the school system's transportation supervisor, said that some routes might have an additional stop, but he did not know how much longer the trips would take.

Officials plan to send new bus schedules to parents a week before the Aug. 25 start of the school year.

Barbara Bayer, manager of Woodlawn Motor Coach Inc. in Catonsville, which provides 43 buses to Howard County and 26 buses to Baltimore County, said she thinks that her drivers will favor longer routes. The company, which has been providing services to Baltimore County for the past 70 years, has been under contract with Howard County schools for the past 15 years.

"The longer the routes, the better the pay," she said. "We guarantee the drivers so many hours a day. They are getting paid more. They are happy with that."

This year, the school system has implemented several steps to deal with the shortage of certified bus drivers. The shortage is troubling many school systems across the nation. Low pay combined with the high stress of the job has resulted in the driver shortage, national experts say.

Drown's staff advertised for drivers this year, a new strategy for the system. In addition, the school system added $1.5 million to its budget last year to raise driver's salaries to $15 an hour from just under $12 an hour two years ago.

"We've aggressively tried to address the shortage," Drown said.

The nation's struggling economy has helped increase the number of bus driver applicants, Drown said.

"More people are looking for work," he said. "We still need bus drivers. It's not as critical as it was, but it's still a need."

Finding qualified drivers is not a major concern for Bayer's company.

"We're pretty lucky," she said. "We have a good group of drivers. Most of them are returning to the same route. We're maybe luckier than the other companies. [But] we're always looking for good drivers."

Drown estimates that the school system has enough drivers to operate the 420 buses needed to transport the 40,000 students riding buses to and from school. The shortage is with substitute bus drivers.

Bayer said fuel costs are still a major concern for her company.

"Although gas is going down, diesel has not followed," she said.


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