Minneapolis and the whole metro area are challenged today by a school bus crisis. Not enough school bus drivers are currently licensed and driving. As a result, public, charter and private schools are unable to provide reliable bus transportation for students. Urgent action is needed.
As a candidate-journalist, in the great tradition of Upton Sinclair, I'm working as a school bus driver. However, while I see and hear the challenges daily, I haven't seen a basis for any kind of "Transit Jungle" expose.
The base from which my bus route originates currently has only about half of the drivers we had before COVID hit in early 2020. Everyone is doing all they can, but route scheduling often is too tight. I am constrained by both privacy and employment issues from elaborating with details. But when you add together the awful state of Minneapolis streets (construction roadblocks are everywhere), COVID concerns and the perception of a dangerous Minneapolis — well, current conditions are against us.
As for hiring new drivers, even someone with school bus driving experience requires a full training routine — three days of in-class instruction and 30 hours or more of behind-the-wheel training. There just aren't enough people in the pipeline to support an expectation that the conventional "ramping-up" process is going to resolve this crisis any time soon. Emergency action is clearly needed.
What might be most productive and practical in the short run?
First: Pay students to ride public transit. Currently, a lot of students have free Metro Transit passes, but this isn't enough. Eligible able-bodied students — starting at somewhere between seventh and ninth grade — should be able to sign an agreement accepting a cash payment of $2 per one-way school trip — that's $4 a day, or over $80 a month — payable on an independent contractor basis. As part of the deal students must agree to be removed from the school bus list.
As a result, many school bus stops would be eliminated — routes could be consolidated or canceled.
In reality, the public is currently paying for two buses for every student — a Metro Transit bus with available capacity, and a school bus seat on an assigned route. If we canceled the school bus for some students, the result would be a savings in the total number of school buses required — but there would be little if any corresponding increase in the number of Metro Transit buses needed. There would probably be a net savings in public cost.
Second: Immediately shut down all street construction projects that can be stopped without interfering with below-pavement infrastructure such as sewers. Our Minneapolis street system is in chaos today. This affects the ability of everyone to get around — things appear to have been planned so badly, if planned at all, that we simply must stop all construction activity that we can before winter hits.
Third: Buy hundreds (maybe 1,000) of 12- to 15-passenger vans and make them available to any Uber, Lyft or taxi driver with a track record working for their company who is willing to drive scheduled morning and/or afternoon school runs. Safety equipment (a stop arm with a flasher, 4-way and 8-way lights,) can be installed as needed and a streamlined training system can be designed and implemented.
Routes can be designed to prioritize safety — avoiding van stops on busy streets, which can be left for buses with experienced drivers to handle. Each van can have radios. Routes can be scheduled using the same system we use to schedule school bus routes — the existing dispatch system can be used to manage and modify routes that are running. Obviously, there is a capacity issue — but many buses are already running with 15 or fewer students. The current hourly pay for school bus drivers is something a lot of Uber and Lyft drivers are likely to find competitive, and they've already prescreened for flexible schedules.
Fourth: Allow some (maybe hundreds) of current Metro Mobility drivers and vans to be deployed to run school bus routes.
Fifth: Negotiate with the U.S. Postal Service and possibly other large entities to make their employees available as part-time van drivers.
Sixth: Negotiate with schools to have their staff, including teachers, provide van driving service. Vans can remain at or near the schools during the day — everyone could commute to the school as they normally do.
Seventh: Consider mobilizing the National Guard as van drivers.
The next step will be to integrate the use of these vans with all elements of our existing transit system. We actually have several transit-transportation systems: Metro Transit, the school bus system, Uber/Lyft/taxis, the Metro Mobility system (part of Metro Transit but functionally separate) — and let's not forget the biggest one: private vehicles. All of these elements can be redesigned to work together if we are determined not to let special and parochial interests stop us from achieving the integration that is possible.
The status quo is a prison of our own making. The key is to devise a workable system and then demand that all special interests yield to the overall public benefits it will provide.
Bob "Again" Carney Jr. is a Republican candidate for mayor of Minneapolis.