Sep 8, 2022 - News

Seattle school buses are stretched thin amid start of academic year

School bus with nervous face
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Teachers in Seattle Public Schools remain on strike, with the district canceling classes Thursday for the second day in a row.

  • But even once school resumes, it's unclear whether all students will be able to rely on their regular routes to get to class.

Driving the news: District officials warned last month that not all bus routes would be in service by Sept. 7, which originally was scheduled to be the first day of the academic year.

  • At the time, the district said families whose bus routes wouldn't be operating would get notified by the first day of school.
  • Over the past two days, however, the district hasn't responded to questions from Axios about the bus situation.
  • It's not clear whether notifications about route cuts have gone out or not, given the delay in the start of classes.

State of play: Nationwide, a shortage of school bus drivers is complicating students' commutes.

  • But Seattle's issues with its longtime school bus contractor, First Student, stretch back years.

Zoom in: Earlier this year, state regulators identified 396 safety violations by First Student, which the company admitted to as part of a settlement with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

  • Last fall, the company's inability to find enough drivers caused the school district to suspend more than 140 bus routes.
  • Before that, a Seattle Times investigation found nearly 5,000 instances between 2016 and 2019 when buses never showed up or were more than an hour late.

This year, after a delayed and less-than-smooth bidding process, Seattle Public Schools decided to hire two companies to operate buses, so that all routes wouldn't necessarily be left to First Student.

  • The new company, Zum, has promised to help modernize the school district's transportation system and make it more efficient.

Yes, but: Zum is still ramping up its service, the district says, and isn’t able to take on 50% of the district’s bus routes just yet.

  • That issue came up during contract negotiations over the summer and wasn't a surprise, the district told Axios.
  • Still, it's caused the district to assign more routes to First Student for now.
  • Even with that reassigning of routes, however, "some bus routes may not be in service for the start of the school year," a district spokesperson wrote in an email to Axios last Friday.

What they're saying: Zum says it will be fully staffed and able to handle half of the district’s bus routes by January.

What we're watching: Whether Zum will be able to meet that deadline — and whether First Student will be able to handle all the routes it says it can in the meantime.

Of note: For now, the school district is encouraging parents to take advantage of a new state program that lets riders 18 and younger board public buses and other transit for free.

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