1. Opinion

Editorial: Finding a new route to school

When a region starts providing more efficient options for people to get around, all kinds of things are possible. Hence the recent suggestion from Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala that the Pinellas County School Board consider having high school students use public transportation instead of yellow buses. That could be one of the benefits if voters approve a one-cent sales tax increase next year to greatly expand bus service for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and build the area's first light rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater. Latvala's idea has potential on several fronts.

Latvala, a board member for PSTA, isn't the only person to suggest the school district could follow the lead of other urban areas that have shifted older students to public transportation. Other communities, most notably Minneapolis and Des Moines, Iowa, where PSTA CEO Brad Miller worked before moving to Florida, have done so to transport thousands of students.

It is a particularly alluring idea for the peninsular Pinellas district, which spends $27 million in annual transportation costs and has been financially pinched because of a lack of enrollment growth. But the benefits of putting high school students on transit buses may be more than dollars and sense. New options for transporting older students could provide an opportunity to shift high schools' start times, which now come early to allow the district to run additional, later routes for elementary and middle students. Educators have long bemoaned that the high school schedule is contrary to the teenage sleep cycle and has a negative impact on learning.

Putting high school students on transit buses would also help build broader service for the community, including an emerging generation that is already less enthralled with the automobile than their parents. Driver's license acquisition among 16-year-olds in 2010 was just 28 percent, down from 46 percent in 1983, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Even among 20- to 24-year-olds, acquisition dropped from 92 percent to 81 percent over the same period. Researchers say the trend is due to multiple factors, from more stringent laws governing teens behind the wheel, higher auto insurance premiums and fuel costs, to the Internet, which has changed how people spend their free time.

Ultimately, however, Latvala's idea only has a chance if voters agree in November 2014 to a one-cent sales tax increase to replace the property tax that currently funds the PSTA and enable the agency to raise $128 million a year and dramatically expand service. The exciting conversation about what that investment could mean for Pinellas is just beginning.