(The Center Square) – Bus ridership within Seattle Public Schools has dropped since the pandemic altered normal school functions, yet this school year’s bus contract is at its highest level ever: $40 million.
Bus ridership at the district’s basic transit program went from 18,227 boardings in 2019 to 6,846 in 2020. That is a 62.4% drop. As COVID-19 restrictions lightened in 2021, ridership improved to 10,921 boardings.
Bus contracts budgeted for the school year went from $33.7 million actually spent in the 2019-2020 school year to approximately $16 million in 2020-2021. This drop correlates with the district’s switch to teaching students from home for the majority of the year.
Now, the 2022-2023 budget is set to spend $40 million on bus contracts for two vendors: First Student and Zum. Seattle Public Schools’ Media Relations Lead Tim Robinson directed The Center Square to the district’s transportation update that was presented to the school board on Dec. 14.
The decrease in ridership was attributed to an increased use of alternative transportation service providers in the document. King County Metro who recently established that riders under the age of 18 can ride for free, which gives them more options to get to and from school at the same “price.”
Inconsistent services in the 2021-2022 school year is also blamed. Some families who made different ride arrangements for their children have maintained their new forms of school transportation and not returned to the district’s bus services.
The report also explains that funding for transportation is heavily weighted on two factors: the number of riders and the number of destinations the buses take students two and from. The number of buses used has no impact on allocation of funds.
The district will look to improve its efficiency when the 2023-2024 budget begins development. This includes shifting bell times to accommodate multiple schools on one route. Bell times for the district’s option schools and skills center would also be shifted back one hour to utilize existing equipment and reduce costs.
Seattle Public Schools will also consider moving to a three-tier start time to stagger school start times between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. This change would spread routes over a longer period and reduce general street congestion in Seattle, according to the district. It would also require the use of less equipment and personnel to provide the same services at a lower cost.