By ALEX MITCHELL
Capital News Service
LANSING– Michigan schools using public transit buses to cut costs want to allow red flashing lights on the vehicles.
Two bills that would allow stoplights to be added to public transportation buses are being sponsored by Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City. Under these bills, the transportation service would pay to have the lights added to its buses.
But not everyone agrees that public buses should have the lights and other improvements school buses have, or even if schools should be able to place their students on public buses.
Federal and state motor vehicle safety standards say only school buses can have a red light system so if the bill is passed, Michigan would violate federal law, said Howard Dashney, consultant for the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation.
Advocates of the bill say that eliminating school-operated buses saves money, and if schools are going to use public buses, they must be as safe as possible.
“School finances are under big pressure these days as a result of higher cost and less revenue,” Walker said.
Schools switching to local public transit services could save up to 50 or 60 percent of their transportation budget, Walker said. Whether or not a person supports schools doing this, everyone can agree these buses need to be as safe as a traditional school bus, he said.
It is unclear how many Michigan schools use public transit to move students, but Suttons Bay and Kalkaska school districts have had success making the transition.
Suttons Bay schools were able to save five teaching jobs by eliminating their own transportation and using the Bay Area Transportation Authority, said Michael Murray, superintendent of Suttons Bay schools.
Suttons Bay has no contract with the Bay Area Transportation, but the school district buys tickets for students at the student rate. This is known as a tripper’s service, according to Thomas Menzel, executive director of the Bay Area Transportation Authority. If Bay Area Transportation were to enter into a contract, they would have to change its buses to school buses and could only transport school children.
Dashney said this type of agreement is illegal.
A public bus operating under a tripper’s service cannot put anything on the bus that has a designation of a school bus, Dashney said. By adding these lights and continuing to allow public buses to operate a tripper’s service, the state would violate another federal law.
However, Murray said that if the state is going to allow schools to use public buses, it must allow them to properly equip them.
“In rural areas, it is mostly 55 mph through the hills. Safety is a concern,” Murray said.
Murray said the proposed bills would add the red stoplights on these public transit buses so that they could be used when loading or unloading school kids. Drivers would have to stop for a public bus with these lights the same way they must stop for school buses unloading children.
Federal issues aside, Dashney said that adding these lights to non-school buses would only serve to confuse the public that has been trained for years that school buses are the only vehicles that can stop traffic.
“If you pass this bill, you will be causing hundreds of thousands of Michigan motorists to be very confused,” Dashney said.
Concerns over children riding these buses with the general public were raised by Paul Wegmeyer, supervisor of transportation at Holt Public Schools.
Wegmeyer said that unlike public transit buses, which serve the public, yellow and black school buses provide exclusive transportation to school-age children.
“I assure you that many if not most parents across the state, would be outraged if they were to discover that their kindergarten children and their youngest of learners were riding to and from school on a bus that could contain sex offenders and any unwelcome adults.”
Menzel attempted to dispel concern over the safety of children.
“We have six security cameras on each bus. The only thing I don’t see is the tailpipe,” he said.
Wegmeyer said that a school bus must meet different standards to ensure safety for children that a public transit bus does not. Among them: Seating designed to protect children of all sizes and elevated bus height that allows for side impacts to go under the side of the bus.
Both Dashney and Wegmeyer said the solution to safety is simple: Only pick up children on the right hand side of the road so that crossing dangerous roads can be eliminated.
Murray disagreed, saying that it is his job to think like a student so that he can stay ahead of them.
If two students live across the street from each other and one gets off on the right hand side but the other is told that he must ride 45 minutes more to be dropped off when the bus turns around, that student is going to get off at his friend’s house and cross when the bus leaves.
“Not only would it double the time of the ride and the expense of the ride, but for students, when school is out they want to get home as soon as possible,” Murray said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By ALEX MITCHELL