Friday, November 2, 2007

Yet Another Reason Why... districts need to embrace smart growth more than ever:
The costs of busing children to school in Maryland have more than doubled in the past 15 years, according to an anti-sprawl group, which says the escalation is a "hidden cost" of poorly planned development in the state.

In a report released today, 1000 Friends of Maryland says taxpayers spent $438 million last year on busing children to public schools, compared with $215 million in 1992.

Citing data from the state Department of Education, the group says that nine of Maryland's 23 counties -- including Baltimore, Howard and Frederick -- saw busing costs more than double. Costs increased even in five counties where the number of students riding the bus declined, the report says.

'We must change development patterns to build more walkable communities closer to schools," Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends said in releasing the report. "That's better for kids and families, and better for Maryland taxpayers."

Cost increases for fuel, insurance and new buses undoubtedly contributed to the overall played a role in the increased spending of public school systems on busing, Schmidt-Perkins acknowledged. While those factors may be largely beyond local and state control, she maintained that government officials can curb transportation costs by requiring more compact development and siting schools within walking distance of the neighborhoods they serve.

"There's other places that money could go," Schmidt-Perkins said. "These dollars are urgently needed in school maintenance, in teacher salaries, in arts programs, gym programs. And they're being poured into school buses in order to get kids to school."

Part of the increase in busing and busing costs stems from a nationwide decline in walking to schools, federal data suggest. In 1969, 87 percent of students who lived within a mile of school walked or biked to school, according to surveys by the U.S. Department of Transportation. By 2001, the rate had dropped to 63 percent.

One reason for the decline in walking has been the construction of larger, regional schools, replacing smaller neighborhood facilities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But even in counties like Baltimore where development is largely concentrated around and within the Beltway, busing costs have gone up, Schmidt-Perkins pointed out. That's partly because even there the schools themselves are not built close enough to neighborhoods or in ways that encourage walking, she contended.

"We're saying we need to be thinking much more strategically about the location of schools and development patterns, because it does have bottom-line consequences," Schmidt-Perkins said.

One county that appears to be doing that, she said, is Kent, where the report shows that bus mileage declined by 16 percent, while the number of students riding buses dropped less than 1 percent. Costs per student still went up there by 38 percent.

Total miles traveled by the public school bus fleets of the 23 counties rose 25 percent since 1992, the report says, now logging more than 117.2 million miles a year.

Baltimore City was not included in the report, Schmidt-Perkins said, because the city schools offer only limited school bus service, relying instead on Maryland Transit Administration buses to transport many students.
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