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February 01, 2000  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Ingenuity Required to Overcome Alaska’s Natural Barriers

Paved highways are rare in the country's northernmost state, requiring schools to find creative ways of meeting the transportation needs of students.

by Joe Precourt


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There are a number of differences between school district operations in Alaska and “Down South” (Remember, for us, northern Minnesota and southern Canada are “Down South”) that govern and set the pace for many of the transportation services we provide. But the difference that has the greatest effect on how the school transportation industry does business is the lack of a cohesive road system. The urban areas of Anchorage and Fairbanks are on the road system and can be expected to deal with some of the more traditional aspects of running a transportation department as well as many of the other support services required of a school district. By the same token, districts on the road system have road access to all the resources available in an urban area, including the ability to get competitive price quotes for goods and services. But Anchorage and Fairbanks are in a relatively small area (less than one-fifth of the area of the state) connected by road to the rest of the North American road system. The magic in that connection is that resources can be driven in by truck at virtually any time of the year, and although delivery costs are not cheap, competition at least exerts some control over the market. But what about districts in the Aleutian Islands or southeast Alaska or the North Slope of the Brooks Range or up the Yukon River? Even here in Juneau (with a population of 30,000, the largest city in the U.S. not connected to the road system), surrounded as it is by glaciers and ice fields, a continuous road connection to the Outside would be an extremely expensive proposition. The inaccessibility of these areas drives the costs of providing services — services that I took for granted in Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon.

Few roads to travel
Alaska is larger than the next three largest states (Texas, California and Montana) combined. The vast majority of the state is roadless and spread out over such a wide area that the North Slope Borough School District, encompassing almost all of the state north of the Brooks Range and the Arctic Circle is, at close to 90,000 square miles, the largest school district in the country. The district is larger than all but eight states, yet has less than 200 miles of road, including residential streets in the eight villages (to put it kindly — hamlets is probably more accurate). All the roads are dirt or gravel. The most telling example of the inaccessibility of the bush is the purchase of new buses. The window is very small to place an order with a manufacturer in the East or South. Many of the navigable rivers of the Interior, much of the Bering Sea and all of the Arctic Ocean are filled with pack ice until early May to mid-June, depending on the location and the severity of the winter. They begin to clog up with ice again in early September in some places. Since the real lifeline to the South for many of these villages is the barge, purchase orders are back-timed to coincide, at the very latest, with the departure of the last barge of the season from Seattle. If that barge is missed, the only alternatives are to wait for next year to take delivery of that new bus or put it on a Herc, which is essentially a super-heavy duty helicopter. The freight charges on some vehicles have run as much as a third of the cost of the bus, upwards of $20,000.

Air routes only
A basic truth about the Alaskan Bush: There are simply some places a bus won’t go. In Bristol Bay at the mouth of the Naknek River, the district contracts with one outfit to bus about 20 students from their homes, which may be subsistence fish camps or logging camps, to the tiny airstrip on the south side of the river. A light single-engine plane has the contract to take the kids across the river in three trips, then a district bus takes the students from the airstrip to the school in the village of Naknek. In the afternoon the whole process repeats itself in reverse — three different public or private entities transporting the students in each direction. In the thousand-plus islands of Southeast Alaska, which is actually part of the Pacific Northwest both culturally and climatalogically, with mild, very rainy winters and cool, delightful summers, boats are the preferred method of travel, with one contracted vessel making several stops along the channels and bays to take students to Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island, the third largest island in the U.S. The island does have 1,100 miles of roads, but 90 percent of them are dirt logging roads, virtually impassable by anything other than four-wheel-drive vehicles. Because the school district is reimbursed for the operation of these planes and boats, referred to as “other conveyances” in regulation, using the same reimbursement process used for school buses, they must be inspected twice a year, which is the statutory requirement for school bus inspections. The Federal Aviation Administration inspects the airplane and the U.S. Coast Guard inspects the boat twice a year.

Water routes, too
The greatest variety of vehicles used to get the kids to school includes private vehicles used by parents to transport their students in the absence of roads, for which the parent is reimbursed in lieu of district-provided transportation. Boats are the most common mode of transport, often operated by the kids themselves, who know more about boats than your teenager or mine know about cars; after boats, though, things start to get weird. As there are no roads over the tundra, many parents bring their children into the village school by tundra vehicles, all-tracks, snowmobiles and, you got it, dogsleds. These are really the most practical ways of getting around the tundra, the muskeg (swampy ground where the permafrost never allows groundwater to penetrate, preventing the ground from ever draining and drying) and the virtually impenetrable Alaskan Bush. In my first few weeks on the job, I discovered an oddity in the way the district was reimbursing one parent in the Southwest Region School District. The family lived at a remote fish camp. The state reimbursed the district for in-lieu-of transportation costs to the family. The odd thing was that we reimbursed them for 12 miles one-way in the fall and spring and only six miles in the winter. I found out from the district that the student, who operated the vehicles himself, came directly across a large lake by snowmobile or dogsled in the winter when the lake was frozen, but had to use an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) around the shore when the lake was thawed, which made his trip twice as long. Alaska state regulations restrict school bus travel to roads with at least a gravel surface that are regularly maintained by a public entity such as the state, a municipality or borough (Alaska’s version of counties). However, the regs shoot themselves in the foot in one sense. Many of these little hamlets simply have no road maintenance — the entire road system may consist of four miles of dirt track, and the only vehicles that residents pay to have shipped in are ATVs.

Clever ban on vans
That created a perplexing problem when the Department of Education proposed the removal of non-conforming vans from to-from school service. Our own regs prevented us from requiring school buses, even the smallest Type A available on the market, because there were no roads to put them on. Talk about things that make you go “Hmm…” Only in Alaska? That anomaly notwithstanding, the State Board of Education approved a new regulation requiring all vehicles that transport students to or from school to meet federal and state standards for school buses after July 1, 2001. The beauty of this statement lies in its simplicity. The only exceptions are for parents’ vehicles and the “other conveyances” discussed earlier in this article. Private schools, daycare centers, vehicles carrying fewer than 10 passengers and transit buses were not excluded; therefore, by extension, they’re included. And, as the language of other regs states that only trained drivers may drive school buses, training is required for anyone driving children to and from school. Until this reg was approved, if the vehicle wasn’t a bus, no training was specified. The proposal wasn’t a total success, however. The initial proposal included vehicles on school-related activities, but the resistance from school districts that still do not believe that non-conforming vans are a problem doomed that section of the proposal. If I was not convinced about how different school transportation was in Alaska, my real education came in the form of a request for reimbursement for hazard routes in the town of Barrow, the northernmost town in North America, only about six or seven miles from Point Barrow. The state reimburses districts for 100 percent of their eligible costs (there are some excluded costs) for the transportation of all students living more than 1.5 miles from their school. If a district decides that an area within that distance is too hazardous for students to walk, the state and the district will share the cost for that hazard busing equally.

Bear necessities
In Barrow, with a very limited road system, all the students are within the walking distance, yet all students are transported. When I spoke to the transportation director about the situation, I told him that, considering the climate they faced, what with the temperatures and the wind-chill from those winds off the Arctic Ocean and the polar icecap, I certainly could support their request for reimbursement for hazard routes. That’s when he stopped me and told me that that wasn’t the reason. “Well, what is?” I countered smoothly. “Polar bears! They wander through town, so we pick up and drop off all kids right at their doors. They wait inside their houses in the morning and the driver waits and makes sure the kids get inside their door in the afternoon.” You know the way you look both ways before crossing the street Down South? In Barrow, especially in the winter when it’s dark 24 hours a day, you look both ways when you leave any doorway. The traffic is a lot more hostile — and hungry. The only response I could come up with to the district’s request was, “Works for me!” I went to my supervisor here at the department and recommended that we approve Barrow’s request for hazard route reimbursement. “Trust me, Ed,” I said. “These guys got hazards.” Where else but in Alaska would a school district have to seriously consider that type of hazard? God, I love this place…

Joe Precourt is pupil transportation director for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.


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