Explore Innovative Approaches to Improving School Bus Transportation Systems

The state should study ways to make public school bus transportation systems more efficient and help school districts pay the cost of converting school buses to alternative fuels.

School bus transportation is an issue of primary importance to school district officials. Recent studies by the Comptroller and the State Auditor have found a number of problems in school transportation operations. Some schools do not stagger school times to allow for efficient scheduling of transportation services so that the number of buses require d is minimized. Districts do not work with other districts to share personnel, equipment and facilities to minimize costs by cooperative transportation programs.

Smaller districts do not attempt to minimize maintenance and repair costs by contracting out with larger districts or with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice bus refurbishing unit. 1 In the management and performance reviews recently performed by the Comptroller s office, efficient management of transportation was found lacking in many districts. 2 Schools did not minimize the number of buses needed by combining bus stops and routes, using scheduling software and evaluating the savings if transportation were contracted with other districts.

In 1991, more than $417 million in state and local funds were spent on school transportation. Expenditures per student for transportation have increased 40 percent over a five-year period, from $80 in 1988 to $113 in 1992. 3 The number of buses and the size of overall transportation operations is staggering. In 1990, there were about 27,500 school transportation vehicles statewide. 4 In a recent survey, 788 school districts (out of a total of 1,053) had a total of about 18,400 buses, with the largest 10 percent of these districts having about 14,000. These buses traveled a total of 274 million miles in 1990-91, for an average of 9,97 5 miles per vehicle.

Public transit operations had 30,856 miles per vehicle for the comparable period, or three times the service miles per school district vehicle. In addition, o nly 38 of the 788 districts responded in a recent survey that they participated in cooperatives or inter-local agreements for transportation, although a large number of schools found that these arrangements reduced costs as well as improved program quality in a majority of cases. 5

Increasing Complexity of School Transit Operations
School bus transportation is increasingly expensive. In addition, state law mandates that school districts with fleets of more than 50 buses convert to alternative fuels. Thirty percent of the buses in those fleets must convert by 1994, 50 percent by 1996 and 90 percent by 1998. In addition, schools are prohibited from purchasing vehicles that are not capable of using alternative fuels. If all existing school transportation vehicl es are converted at a cost of $4,000 per vehicle, local school districts will spend at least $110 million over this period. Conversion also will require that sufficient maintenance and fueling stations are available and capable of handling alternative fuel s. Additional costs will be incurred to convert current diesel and gasoline bus maintenance operations to accommodate alternative fuel vehicles.

Since none of the alternative fuels arrangements have federal crash standards in place that manufacturers must meet, schools take on an additional liability with these converted vehicles. In Canada, a recent $50 million lawsuit settlement over the crash of several propane vehicles resulting in deaths has changed standards for these vehicles. These federal standards are not expected to be available until 1994 at the earliest. Since Texas standards are fuel-specific, they may well conflict with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Air Act rules that expected to be determined by 1994 and are to be more fuel-ne utral. Finally, schools are paying to convert older gasoline vehicles, which are not as efficient as diesel-run buses, to alternative fuels.

The capital investment required to meet the conversion deadlines are substantial and districts are speeding up their normal schedules for replacing vehicles to comply with those deadlines.

Frustration over the required change to alternative fuels is growing among school districts. Members of the Texas Association of Pupil Transportation recently met in Houston to discuss a possible lawsuit against the state involving these safety issues and the costs. The association plans to propose changes in the statute to remedy these problems. 6

Other transportation-related areas where costs are increasing include workers compensation, liability insurance and drivers wages. In addition to conversion, school districts also must ensure that bus drivers have commercial driver s licenses and be tested for drugs. These requirements also will exacerbate the long-term problem of hirin g an adequate number of part-time drivers and training them.

School Transportation Costs
School districts must provide transportation for eligible children to and from school each day, including transportation for special and vocational education students . School district buses travel about 274 million miles meeting their normal transportation needs, spending about $420 million each year. In addition, school districts usually provide transportation for extra curricular activities and other trips that resul t in an additional 33 million miles traveled.

About 12 percent of all transportation miles are related to activities not essential to education. Extracurricular activities, field trips and other uses were responsible for $50.3 million of all transportation expenses in fiscal 1991. 7 This amount probably underestimates the amount of funds actually spent for extra curricular activities since recent audits have revealed that a number of schools improperly attribute these expenditures to academic-related transportation. 8

Most school bus equipment is used only for school and related activities. These vehicles are left idle during much of the day and during school breaks. In many locations, the number of school buses is larger than the number of buses involved in public transit operations. At a cost of approximately $47,000 per vehicle, the return on the investment for communities as a whole is low, given the number of hours these vehicles sit idle.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) distributes transportation money to the 1,050 school districts throughout the state based on the number of students within an area served and the miles of approved routes. These state funds are mixed with locally generated money to pay for each district s transportation costs. State fun ding is allocated to each school district through the Foundation School Program (FSP). The FSP funding in 1990-91 totaled $226.8 million and is estimated to reach $229.6 million in fiscal 1993. 9

San Antonio Model
Each school district may operate its own vehicle fleet or it may contract with a public or private company to provide services. Before contracting with a private company, the law requires school boards to find that it is economically advantageous to do so.

One example of contracting is the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD). 10 This district has bid transportation services for at least 30 years, and the successful bidder always has been the local metropolitan transit authority, VIA, or the city before the transit authority was created. This contract has allowed VIA to mesh the s chool bus transportation needs with its mainline services to other commuters.

Buses that are used for school children are used later in the day for commuters. School buses are regular VIA commuter buses, which federal funds helped to purchase. In a Texas School Performance Review study, SAISD was commended for maintaining one of the highest bus-seat occupancy rates and lowest transportation costs per student in the state. 11 VIA also provides technical management and equipment that facilitate efficient transportation. VIA uses computer mapping and two-way radios to track buses to ensure safe, reliable transportation for school children.

The federal government requires all mass transit buses remain open to the p ublic and that buses are not marked as school buses. However, this requirement has not posed a problem for the district and VIA. Officials have found that with the addition of school buses, more bus stops and more frequent service have been possible. Like many other school transportation systems, VIA or the school district sometimes provides monitors on buses to assure the children s safety and to protect transit property.

Public Transit Operations
Funding school bus transportation and public transit operations is different. School bus transportation is mostly funded by state appropriations and local property taxes designated for schools. 12 Transit operations receive local, state and federal funding from local sales tax and state and federal transit and transportation funds.

Also, the new Intermodal Surface Transportation Act of 1991 (ISTEA) provides additional money for public transit capital expenditures at the discretion of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) out of funds previously reserved f or highway construction.

Public transportation systems in both urban and rural Texas communities face criticism. Some are criticized for low ridership, while other systems receive complaints about inadequate service. The quality and quantity of services, the need for service and t he level of funding vary widely across the state.

Metropolitan areas, such as Houston and Dallas, collect the maximum sales tax of one cent and fund a variety of programs. Low ridership in some metropolitan areas has brought loca l pressure to spend the accumulated funds for other purposes. Other transit systems face operating fund shortages when ridership demands increase and capital expenditures are necessary. 13

Six Metropolitan Transit Authorities (MTAs) in Texas serve cities with a population of more than 200,000. There are also smaller transit systems, usually tied to the municipality. And some rural communities have transit systems, primarily organized by TxDO T. The operating costs of MTAs alone for fiscal 1993 are estimated at $1.1 billion. Capital expenditures for the same period are projected to reach $594.6 million and $24.1 million for planning. 14 TxDOT operates rural transportation programs with a combination of state and federal funds.

Most transit and school bus operations plan and operate independently of each other. Traditionally, Texas has made no effort to coordinate and maximize the efficiency of these two existing systems.

Duplication occurs in personnel, management, and training, equipment and facilities. The p otential for cost efficiencies through energy conservation and elimination of duplication is substantial. Rural and urban, as well as school and public transit systems would benefit by integrating these operations.

The following school transportation recommendations are to be funded through the state s oil overcharge funds. (See the related paper on this topic.)

A. The Legislature should direct through a rider in the General Appropriations Act the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT ) to work with the Texas Education Agency to study the feasibility of combining transportation services for school and transit operations and report in November 1994 to the Legislature.

Such a study will cost approximately $150,000, if contracted, and should examine operational costs, management, scheduling, personnel, drug testing, commercial drivers licenses and training, repair and maintenance, safety, barriers to consolidating transportation functions and funding. The study should also evaluate and compare the cost effectiveness of independent school bus transportation, school bus transportation shared among districts and school bus systems integrated with transit operations. For those areas where integration of bus services is feasible, a prototype plan for integration should be formulated.

Those preparing the study should consult with TxDOT s Transit Advisory Committee, the Texas Transit Authority, and other groups concerned with public transit and school bus transportation issues. Hearings should be held to allow for public input. When appropriate, the expertise of the Texas A&M University s Texas Transportation Institute, the University of Texas Center for Transportation Research and Texas Southern University should be used. To the extent poss ible, oil overcharge funds and federal ISTEA planning funds should finance the cost of the study.

B. The Legislature should provide through an appropriations rider up to $30 million in oil overcharge funds for school districts to cover the cost of convert ing vehicles to alternative fuels if districts have combined with other districts or transit operations to become more cost-effective.

This funding should cover the cost of converting vehicles to an alternative fuel or the additional cost of purchasing a vehicle capable of using alternative fuels.

C. The Legislature should direct that a sufficient amount of oil overcharge funds be made available to school districts to purchase and install scheduling and routing software and to train local school distri ct personnel in its use.

These expenditures would allow schools to operate more efficient school transportation programs and conserve energy resources. This type of program is allowed under the rule governing the use of oil overcharge funds.

The recommended study should identify potential ways to better coordinate and manage regional transportation resources, evaluate the feasibility of combining operations and develop implementation plans when appropriate. In those cases where schools com bine transportation operations with other schools or with public transit operations, additional school resources can be devoted to the primary functions of educating students, instead of auxiliary issues such transportation. Since implementing these recomm endations would conserve energy, they are allowed under the rules governing oil overcharge funds.

Fiscal Impact
The estimated $150,000 cost of the study could be funded by oil overcharge funds as an energy conservation project and, if needed, federal IST EA funds from TxDOT. The Southwest Region University Transportation Center could perform this study. The center received $3.5 million in oil overcharge funds for the 1992-93 biennium. The study can be funded either through remaining program balances or add itional oil overcharge redesignations to accomplish this study.

Up to $30 million in oil overcharge funds can be used to convert school transportation vehicles to alternative fuels. An additional amount will be needed to handle transportation scheduling a nd routing software and training. Their cost can be determined more accurately when a needs survey of local school districts is done.

1 Texas State Auditor s Office, Looking Ahead... Making the Most of our Education Dollars (Austin, Texas, November 1992), p. 66.
2 Comptroller of Public Accounts, Texas Performance Review, Texas School Performance Review, Pilot Program (Austin, Texas, July 1991), pp. 31, 52.
3 Texas State Auditor s Office, p. 95.
4 Texas Education Agency, 1990-91 Transportation Operation Cost Report (Austin, Texas, May 1992), p. 1. (computer printout).
5 Ibid., pp. 124 and 126.
6 Interview with Dan Roberts, Transportation Director, Austin Independent School District (Austin, Texas, December 18, 1992).
7 Texas Education Agency, p. 1.
8 Texas State Auditor s Office, p. 66.
9 Texas Education Agency, Report on Transportation Allotment Formula (Austin, Texas, 1992), p. 7.
10 Interview with John Milan, Acting Manager, and staff, VIA-San Antonio Transit Authority, San Antonio, Texas, November 12, 1992.
11 Comptroller of Public Accounts, Texas School Performance Review, Texas School Performance Review, Pilot Program (Austin, Texas, July 1991), p. 16.
12 A county tax provides school bus transportation for Dallas County school districts.
13 Interview with Richard Christi, Division Director, Transit Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, November 5, 1992.
14 Texas State Department of Highways and Public Transportation, Public Transportation In Texas: Profiles and Projections; 1992-1995 (Austin, Texas, July 1991), p. 267.