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Public Transit Buses May Carry Hartford Students

By COLIN POITRAS And JEFF COHEN, Courant Staff Writers

April 13, 2008

Hartford high school students could be riding Connecticut public transit buses to get to school this fall under the provisions of a new school-bus contract being negotiated with local bus companies.

High school students who choose to enroll in schools outside of their immediate neighborhoods in the 2008-09 school year will have the option of using a transit bus pass under a pilot program School Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski has included in his proposed budget.

By the start of the 2009-2010 school year, all high school students may have the option of boarding city buses in order to reach an increasing number of specialty schools that are opening in place of traditional high schools.

Whether CT-Transit buses can handle the increased ridership during peak commuter hours has some people concerned. If a lot of students decide to take advantage of the option, it could lead to large groups of unsupervised kids congregating at the city's central transit hubs, a security and safety concern.

Hartford school officials stressed that for now, nothing beyond the initial pilot is certain. When the city put out specifications for a new five-year bus contract, it asked interested bidders to provide two separate total cost estimates for service one including the transportation of high school students on traditional yellow school buses and one without the high school students. Which contract school officials will choose is uncertain.

"It's really too new to talk about," said Nancy Benben, interim chief communications officer for Hartford schools. "A lot of details need to be worked out."

Springfield was one of the first cities in the region to co-opt regional public transit buses to supplement its school bus fleet. After some early glitches, the program has been a popular success, according to Jack Maloney, transportation director for Springfield public schools.

The Springfield program, like Hartford's proposed program, is limited to high school students. Maloney said students living in the downtown area use photo identification cards that they swipe through a card reader each time they take a ride. The city pays for student trips at a bulk rate of $2 a day, or 50 cents less than the commercial rate for a round trip.

High school students living in the outlying areas of the city still get to class via the traditional yellow buses, Maloney said. About 900 students, about a third of the district's high school enrollment, use public transit, he said.

"The big thing is it's very efficient, Maloney said. "Your Connecticut Transit could probably do it with just a burp because they're so efficient."

Traditional yellow buses will still be offered to Hartford high school students who choose to attend their neighborhood schools, officials said. But public transit might be more practical for instance, if a Bulkeley High School senior wishes to attend classes at a new nursing school being offered inside Harford Public High School on the other side of town, Adamowski said.

"We're trying to encourage choice," Adamowski said. "[Using city transit buses] was requested by parents. It's a relatively small expense that meets the needs of some."

Connecticut transit administrators and Hartford police representatives first discussed the idea of using state transit buses with school officials last fall. CT-Transit Assistant General Manager Phil Fry said he thought the city was going to abandon the idea after hearing all the concerns raised at the meeting.

"We saw some possible difficulties with it occurring the way school officials wanted to have it occur," Fry said. "We left that meeting assuming it wasn't going forward."

Fry said school buses hold more people than CT-Transit vehicles, and he was concerned there would not be enough capacity to meet students' needs along with the usual crush of commuters in the mornings and afternoons.

Bridgeport tried using city transit buses for all of its high school students four years ago but quickly realized it didn't have the capacity, according to Raul Lafitte, transportation director for the city's schools. Bridgeport now uses city transit for some high school students and yellow buses for others. Springfield ended up adding special public transit bus trips during school hours to meet the demand there.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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