TAMPA — Hillsborough County's school bus system is "stressed to the breaking point" with low employee morale and a gross underinvestment in vehicles that could require at least $11 million a year to correct, a consultant says.
A study, released Friday in advance of a School Board workshop Wednesday, says service to more than 90,000 students will deteriorate rapidly if the district does not invest more in its transportation department.
"Either more funding must be provided or service delivery must be constrained," School Bus Consultants wrote. "There is no other alternative."
Their findings confirm much of what the Tampa Bay Times has reported, and what employees have said in recent months about old buses, a shortage of drivers and a struggling maintenance department.
"We demand a lot of the transportation department, and it's time to start making investments," district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
While in 2006, 5 percent of the buses were more than 15 years old, that share is now 25 percent, the consultants wrote.
Buying the recommended numbers of buses would cost between $11 million and $16 million a year for 14 years. Stated another way, the district's $67 million yearly transportation budget would have to grow by more than 16 percent.
Recognizing that kind of money might not be available, the consultants recommended the district consider leasing or debt financing.
But, they wrote, failure to reverse the current trend will "result in systemic service delivery failures in the near future."
The consultants used as their starting point a transportation plan they created for the district in 2007. The firm was paid about $40,000 for the latest report.
The first two years of implementation were successful, they wrote. The district began to make better use of technology for tasks such as route planning.
"But when it came to the major investments that would be required to realize the benefits of these changes, progress stalled and then stopped," they wrote, noting the recession was likely the cause.
The district never made sure it paid competitive wages to drivers and aides, they wrote. And not enough was invested in physical facilities, such as repair shops.
The likely results, they wrote, include the driver shortage and a maintenance department that struggles to keep up with the aging buses. They estimated there are 24 school bus breakdowns a day. At 2.2 percent of daily routes, that rate of breakdowns is far higher than the industry expectations of under 0.5 percent. And there are more vacancies in the repair shops.