By guest blogger Kevin Connors
In an effort to combat rising transportation costs, Hawaii's department of education will implement routing software and GPS systems in all public school buses with the goal of improving efficiency and providing greater safety for students.
Schools have grappled with rising fuel prices for years, and Hawaii's effort is one of many steps taken by states to use technology to try to drive down transportation costs. Several districts throughout the United States have experimented with GPS systems, but Hawaii, where all schools are a part of a single school district, will become the first state to adopt the technology. Nearly 45,000 students ride public school buses across 700 routes throughout the islands.
"Our system was systematically broken," said Ray L'Heureux, assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services. "We are completely transforming the way we procure, contract, and operate our bus system."
In a state audit of the transportation system last year, department of education officials were criticized for poor management, which the report said led to sharp increases in overall transportation costs. In 2011, $72.4 million was spent on transportation, up from $25.5 million in 2006.
"Ineffective planning for bus services has resulted in routes that are not evaluated for cost, efficiency or adherence to safety guidelines," the report stated. "Unsystematic oversight of bus service contracts has resulted in escalating costs and lack of accountability."
The GPS initiative is part of a broader overhaul designed to correct those problems, and others identified in the report, including inadequate procurement practices, lack of training for transportation officers, and insufficient bus stop safety.
Last January, the department of education tested the GPS and routing software and found several inefficiencies with the old transportation model: routes were overlapping with each other, buses were idling for too long and too frequently, and some buses were operating at 30 percent capacity.
The program should be paid for within the first year, partly through savings created by the state using GPS and routing software to choose more efficient bus routes, which will in turn reduce overhead and fuel costs, L'Heureux said.
The state's new procurement practices, meanwhile, will open up bidding on contracts to multiple vendors, as opposed to the state simply awarding the contract to the same vendor every year. The new process will create competition and allow the state to receive better products at a lower price.
The project will begin on August 5th—the first day of school—when 100 bus routes will be restored, a direct result of the more efficient routing system and a decision that affects nearly 2,000 students. Within two years, L'Heureux expects every bus in the state to be equipped with the GPS and routing software.
The GPS initiative also will provide greater safety for students, parents, and schools, the department predicts. L'Heureux will use the new technology to scan student IDs in order to track where they get on and off buses and also to keep track of every bus' location throughout the day. Whether a bus is running late to school or breaks down on the side of the road, the GPS allows the department to react appropriately and swiftly in all situations.
"My number one concern was our ability to provide safe and efficient transportation for our kids," he said. State officials also wanted "to gain back the confidence of the parents, school board, public, and legislature and show them that our department has that ability to provide effective and efficient transportation."
Hawaii is not the only state that has been confronted by rising fuel costs, as diesel fuel prices continue to hover around $3.90 nationally. Districts in at least 12 other states, including Florida, Texas, and Ohio, have already installed similar GPS and routing software to address the issue.
Additional cost-saving techniques used by other districts include streamlining procurement practices, consolidating routes, exploring hybrid buses and alternative fuels, changing bell schedules, and even shortening the school week to four days—a practice currently in use by more than 120 districts throughout 21 states.