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First week of school marred by extreme delays in PPS bus routes

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Portland Public Schools spent $11 million last year on home-to-school services.Many buses for Portland Public Schools kids were running off schedule for the first week of school, and that had parents pretty frustrated.

Anna Kullgren said her 13-year-old reported going past Madison High School in outer Northeast Portland — twice — to get between inner northeast neighborhoods Rose City Park and Woodlawn. The trip, which takes about 15 minutes in a car, took an hour and 25 minutes this week, Kullgren says.

She says she understands that things can be rough the first week of school.

“But still, there’s GPS. I don’t see that there’s an excuse for that,” Kullgren said. “I just don’t see that would be insurmountable.”

“Our phones have been very busy,” says PPS Transportation Services Senior Director Teri Brady. Brady says particular trouble spots for the district have been with traffic along West Portland’s Burnside Road, as well as unexpectedly higher enrollment in the Sellwood area leading to delays.

“It’s very common to have issues at the start of the year,” says Courtney Wilton, the district’s executive director of facilities operations. But, Wilton admits, there have been a lot more issues this year, especially with lateness, and some of that is the district’s fault.

“Where we’re not doing as good a job as we probably need to do is we have a number of routes that aren’t as timely. And that’s a problem,” he says.

Some of routes, which are designed by the district over the summer, “fundamentally don’t have enough time to get from A to B,” Wilton says. Routes are now being adjusted and added to, to make up for those problems.

The interim operations manager says he also blames a lot of the problems on how terrible traffic has gotten for everyone in the Portland area.

“Portland, as we all know, is getting more congested,” Wilton says. “We’re finding our routes are more challenging to do given that.”

A bustling economy has thrown another roadblock in the way of PPS buses. First Student, which has a six-year contract with PPS, is having a hard time finding people who want the part-time, $16-an-hour jobs, according to Brady.

“I think the biggest factor is that the economy has really picked up,” she says. Brady says trained employees tend to leave for full-time jobs at TriMet or leave busing entirely.

Wilton says the short staffing means that substitute drivers have been called in, who don’t have the same experience.

“They have documentation to help them, but they’re not as familiar with the route. They just aren’t,” he says.

PPS bus drivers are required to have 15 hours of behind-the-wheel training, as well as other tests and requirements for a Commercial Driver’s License and a School Bus License. The drivers must pass a physical, a drug test, first aid training and eight hours of how to manage a bus full of kids. The drivers are also expected to complete three practice runs of their routes before the first day of school, Brady says.

Wilton says the district may look into technology like Uber and TriMet have that tracks vehicles to inform clients of their location or arrival time.

“Obviously, the world is changing and people are starting to expect (features like that),” he says.

Brady says every bus incident is tracked in a database at PPS. However, she was unable to say how many negative incidents there have been and how that compares to previous years as the database logs every communication, even positive comments and very minor delays.

The district spent about $11 million last year on home-to-school transportation. Brady says the district will decide this year whether to extend the contract with First Student — which expires June 2018 — or do a round of requests for proposals from transport companies.

For now, Brady says the district is working hard to get through the backlog of complaints.

“We are responding even though it seems like we’re not doing anything. We do understand there’s an issue,” she says. “I would ask for patience, but I do know it’s very frustrating.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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