Issaquah School District buses to add $40,000 worth of GPS units
December 28, 2010
By Laura Geggel
Starting in January, Issaquah School District transportation shop mechanics will install 161 GPS units in the district’s bus fleet, a venture costing $40,000 to install and $40,000 annually in upkeep.
The GPS units are financed by the February 2010 capital projects levy that voters passed with 65 percent of the vote. Over the four-year lifetime of the $38.5 million levy, the GPS units and system will cost a total of $200,000.
The GPS units will help transportation shop mechanics coordinate with bus drivers whose buses are having mechanical problems and with parents who have questions about a bus’ location, district Director of Transportation Jo Porter said.
Unlike a TomTom or a Garmin GPS device, the Zonar GPS units the district purchased do not have screens showing bus drivers where to turn. Instead, the Zonar GPS units track a number of other things, including the speed and location of the bus and whether the bus driver put out the crossing paddle before opening the bus door. The GPS units also come with a diagnostic and analytic-software that monitors bus engines.
Without the GPS units, bus drivers are required to stop their buses if they hear a suspicious engine-related noise during a route. About twice a week, mechanics go out into the field to check or fix buses with maintenance issues, Porter said.
Once the GPS units are installed, the driver can simply radio the mechanics, who can then diagnose the problem from the bus barn and determine whether they need to dispatch a mechanic.
The GPS will also help the transportation department give valuable information to parents calling to learn of their child’s location if a bus is running late, as many were during the pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm.
“The communication system for our department became saturated with many, many phone inquiries — parents wanted to know where the buses were,” Porter wrote in an e-mail about the snowstorm. “Most bus routes in the afternoon ran late due to the high volume of traffic on the roadways.”
The only way to determine a bus’ location was to ask the driver on the two-way radio, but all bus drivers share the same channel, meaning only one driver could talk at a time. With 161 buses carrying about 9,000 students on 110 squares miles of road, the transportation department had a difficult time tracking down all of its vehicles.
“If more than one person tries to talk on the radio at one time, you can’t understand it,” bus driver Clayton Smith said.
Once the GPS devices are installed, transportation workers will be able to identify where buses are at all times of the day. The software will show mechanics a map of the district and the location of each bus, with a Doppler radar superimposed on the map, Zonar spokesman Kyle Bruny said.
“Knowing the location and status of the buses, drivers and passengers is the heart of any pupil transportation operation,” Porter said.
The GPS system also tracks the best route available, and though the district already has software that analyzes routes, Porter said having two best-route programs would help the district pinpoint the best way to drive students to and from school.
Is it worth it?
Although costly, the GPS system might pay for itself.
“Dispatch will be able to answer bus location inquires faster and accurately,” Porter wrote. “GPS will offer ways to review routes, idle time and enhance ways to save fuel consumption and reduce bus emissions.”
The district can set a timer, programming the GPS to notify it if a bus idles for more than, say, one minute, Bruny said.
Money saved by the system will go directly into the classroom, district spokeswoman Sara Niegowski said.
But the cost has some questioning whether the system is worth its price.
“We’ll have to see,” Smith said. “I think it’s a lot of money, but there are definitely benefits.”
Driver Don Janus said he was on both sides of the fence.
“I think it’s going to be a good tool,” he said. “We’ll be able to find a bus if it’s lost.”
But, “there won’t be anything on the bus that can help the driver,” he said, talking about the lack of electronic GPS maps. “I think it’s something I would like to see on the bus. It would be nice for subs.”
In the future, the district might purchase ZPass, an accompanying program that tracks students as they enter and exit the bus.
“Knowing if and when a student got on or off the bus accounts for a significant portion of calls parents make to schools or the transportation department,” Porter wrote.
The Olympia School District is running a pilot ZPass program, and about 4,000 buses in 40 districts are using ZPass technology now, Porter wrote.
Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.