Sen. Chris Buttars has suggested that public education could save $75 million a year by eliminating school bus service for high school students.
The suggestion isn’t likely to go anywhere, because many high school students do need buses to get to school.
But there is a way to save substantial money in school transportation budgets. It may not be practical in a comprehensive way for a few more years, but it’s something that Utah policymakers should clearly be thinking about. It’s not too soon to start doing some feasibility studies.
Here’s how to save significant money: In many other U.S. cities and foreign countries, public transit is used to transport students in middle schools and high schools. In Europe, especially, most countries don’t have duplicative fleets of school buses and public transit buses. Young people take public transit to get to school, and transit routes take into account school needs.
Currently, the Salt Lake City School District uses Utah Transit Authority for some of its school transportation needs. Many private schools also rely on UTA for student transportation.
Today, UTA bus routes obviously aren’t maximized for school needs. But within a couple of years, UTA’s backbone will be completed with new TRAX lines to Draper, South Jordan, West Valley, and the airport, and FrontRunner south to Provo.
Once those lines are completed, the next big program will be fill-in projects with streetcars, bus rapid transit, neighborhood bus service, bike trails, and walking trails. At that point, public transit service will be ubiquitous across the Wasatch Front, serving almost all neighborhoods. The overall transit system will then be robust enough to accommodate needs of older students.
It’s unlikely that elementary school children would ever be asked to ride public transit. But the system anticipated being built could readily accommodate middle school and high school students, at a significantly reduced cost than is currently being spent for school transportation.
The school bus fleet across the Wasatch Front is enormous and costs more than $100 million dollars a year. Those buses sit idle except for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon. It makes little sense to have redundant bus systems serving the same neighborhoods.
With perhaps as little as half the budget currently being spent on school transportation, UTA could take over a large portion of school busing, and public education could save tens of millions of dollars, which could be invested in teachers’ salaries or reduced class sizes.
It’s an idea certainly worth considering.