By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii Island public school buses will begin using high-tech routing software and global positioning system (GPS) tracking in the 2015-16 academic year, as the state Department of Education expands a plan to overhaul its transportation system.
The DOE will first begin using the system this fall in a pilot program on buses serving 30 schools and up to 1,000 students on Oahu in the Aiea, Moanalua, Pearl City, Radford and Waipahu High complex areas, said Ray L’Heureux, assistant superintendent for the DOE’s Office of School Facilities and Support Services.
“If we tried to roll this out at every school at once, we would fail badly,” he said in a Wednesday interview. “Instead, we’re going to be doing it in phases.”
The department will expand the pilot program to the rest of Oahu in 2014-15 and then out to the Neighbor Islands the following year. However, the technology has been used here before, L’Heureux said.
“In January, we had a pilot test of this technology from a company named Zonar on 15 buses in Kona, and it was a resounding success,” he said.
Using the GPS technology, operators were able to spot inefficiencies, including one route that was being covered by two different buses, unbeknownst to the transportation department, L’Heureux said.
“The system is antiquated, people have been drawing maps by hand,” he said.
While such technology will prove to be far more useful in congested parts of the state like Honolulu, where bus routes can take many twists and turns, L’Heureux said routes on the Big Island and other rural areas tend to be much more “Point A to Point B.”
“Routing on the Big Island is a fairly easy solution,” he said, “although, in some of the more dense areas like Waimea and portions of Kona, it will help us make sure routes are efficient.”
In addition to GPS tracking of the buses, students were outfitted with individual, radio-frequency identification (RFID) cards that they presented upon entering and exiting the bus. This provides the school system with real-time information regarding when and where students got on and off the bus.
Such data can not only increase productivity and efficiency of the busing system, but also help to ensure student safety, L’Heureux said.
“For instance, someone might call and say their child never got off the bus, that information would be available,” he said.
The department eliminated more than 100 school bus routes last year because of rising costs and declining funding, but has since restored many of them as part of the first phase of its reform program — known as the “Get on Board” Initiative — and due to savings through streamlining services.
A state audit last year blasted education officials for “ineffective and unsystematic” management that has resulted in spiraling costs. Money spent on student transportation has nearly tripled to $72.4 million since 2006. The wide-ranging audit addressed concerns from the safety of bus stops to training of transportation officers to procurement practices.
“Ineffective planning for bus services has resulted in routes that are not evaluated for cost, efficiency or adherence to safety guidelines,” the report found. “Unsystematic oversight of bus service contracts has resulted in escalating costs and lack of accountability.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law two bills that give the DOE more flexibility in how it awards its bus contracts. The DOE said it has developed a number of communications protocols between bus vendors, schools, parents and students.
Parents can register their children for bus ridership at their schools. Letters to public school parents are being mailed this week regarding bus registration requirements, according to a release from the DOE.
The department has established a Get on Board Call Center at (808) 206-7936 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional updates can also be found on the DOE’s new website at http://www.hawaiipublicschools.org/BeyondTheClassroom/Transportation/.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.