Budget woes force student transportation cuts

By Bill Holloway

As the 2012-2013 school year begins, school districts across the country are looking to their student transportation programs for savings. Because districts want to preserve funding for classroom instruction, student transportation is often the first budget item to be cut when districts are faced with revenue shortfalls.

Nationally, the cost of student transportation has been rising rapidly. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in constant 2008-2009 dollars the per-pupil cost for students transported at public expense climbed from $704 in the 2000-2001 school year to $866 in 2007-2008.

In order to reduce these costs, districts have taken a variety of approaches: expanding their “walk zones” (areas within a certain distance of school where bus service is not provided to students), stepping up their enforcement of walk-zone rules already in place, and changing the way they provide bus service to students.

There is a danger in this cost-cutting that schools simply shift costs onto families and other levels of government. School transportation decisions have wide ranging impacts on the health, safety, and livability of their communities and indirectly impact the budgets of other levels of government.

As noted in SSTI’s Report, Reducing Costs in Kansas through Transportation Efficient School Siting, parents driving their children to school often represent a large fraction of morning traffic and the costs of building, maintaining, and expanding roads to serve this increased traffic is normally borne by local governments. Parents also bear significant costs in terms of time, fuel, and vehicle maintenance when they have to drive their kids to school. Consolidating bus stops and eliminating bus service for students who could reasonably be expected to walk can be a win-win by lowering costs for the district—as well as the rest of society—by reducing road traffic and promoting active transportation among students.

However, extending the “walk zone” to two or three miles—a distance unwalkable for most students— just shifts transportation costs onto parents and local governments. In addition, even families who live within a short distance of their school may find walking difficult because of the need to cross busy roads, lack of street connectivity, or even lack of sidewalks. Safer walking routes to schools could help cut transportation costs for both school districts and families.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.