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February 01, 2009  |   Comments (1)   |   Post a comment

Small Buses Take On Tough Terrain

West County Transportation Agency relies on its Type As to safely carry special-needs students on — and off — the rugged roads of rural Sonoma County, Calif.

by Thomas McMahon, Executive Editor


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With about 1,500 square miles of mostly rural area to cover, West County Transportation Agency (WCTA) school buses regularly venture off paved streets and onto dirt roads and driveways.

The agency relies on its small buses, most of which carry students with special needs, to endure and maneuver well on the rugged terrain.

“A lot of what we do, because it’s rural, is going off-road and onto driveways — we may travel up a dirt driveway for a ways to get to the house,” says Michael Rea, executive director of WCTA. “That’s why a van-type cutaway works better for us.”

Even the on-road driving can be rough: Sonoma County, where WCTA is based, is one of the lowest-rated counties in California for road condition.

WCTA runs about 50 small buses, most of which are Girardins on Ford or Chevy chassis. For the agency, one of the key features of the Girardins is that they are mounted on the chassis using rubberized pucks to isolate shock.

“That makes a difference,” Rea says. “We keep our buses a long time.”

Cost-saving service
WCTA is a joint-powers agreement of 16 school districts in Sonoma County. The agency transports about 3,500 students throughout the area, which covers vineyards, orchards and redwood forests.

The WCTA headquarters is in Santa Rosa, which, at a population of about 150,000, is relatively large compared to the towns in the surrounding region.

Since most of the local school districts are small and not well positioned to run their own transportation services, WCTA fills a vital role. Rea says that through economies of scale and efficiency, the agency yields significant savings for the districts.

WCTA was formed in 1988 with eight school district members. Since then, it has gradually accepted more members to broaden its base and spread its fixed costs. The agency brings in some additional revenue by providing services for non-member districts and government agencies, helping to further defray its member districts’ transportation costs.

Still, funding is a significant challenge for the school districts. Rea says that, on average, California pays only about 45 percent of school transportation operational costs.

Meeting many needs
In WCTA’s early days, it covered its members’ general-education transportation but not special needs. But that has changed over the years, with the agency now having full responsibility for members’ special-needs transportation as well as general-ed.

About half of WCTA’s small buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts. The other half are ambulatory-type buses. Rea notes that one of the perks of their small bus operation is working with Girardin.

“They are very responsive,” Rea says. “If there are things that we like about a bus, even if it isn’t part of their regular model, they are willing to go ahead and re-engineer something for us.”

In addition to the small buses, WCTA runs about 90 large buses, mostly 40-foot, 84-passenger models.

About a third of WCTA’s buses are powered by compressed natural gas. The agency’s diesel buses have been equipped with emissions-reducing technology, such as particulate traps.

Diverse duties
WCTA has a total staff of 108 people. Rea and a few other staff members have been with the agency since its inception.

Rea started in pupil transportation more than 30 years ago when he got a job as a school bus driver to help pay his way through college. Before WCTA, he worked in transportation for a local school district.

As executive director of WCTA, Rea says that he enjoys the diversity of his tasks. Since the agency is not part of a district administration, “I’m responsible for everything,” Rea says.

In addition to the operational aspects of school transportation, his duties include managing and building the budget, handling labor negotiations and personnel issues, and overseeing facility matters like construction.

“There’s a lot of exciting things that I’ve been able to do that I wouldn’t normally have done if I was working for a school district,” Rea says. “Probably the most creative part has been building a new organization from the ground up.”

WCTA’s board of directors is composed of superintendents from member school districts. Rea has monthly meetings with the board.

In addition to his responsibilities at WCTA, Rea is involved with the California Association of School Transportation Officials. He currently serves as government relations chair and as president of the association’s Chapter 13, which covers Sonoma and three adjacent counties.

Due recognition
WCTA’s school bus drivers are members of the California School Employees Association, a union that also represents staff in other school support positions like food services, security, and office and clerical services.

At the end of each school year, WCTA holds a potluck picnic, in which awards are given for safety performance and other achievements. Drivers as well as office staff members are recognized for such matters as retirement, roadeo participation and safety commendations from the California Highway Patrol.

Throughout the year, employees of the month are named, and an employee of the year is named at the picnic. There is also a special recognition each year for the group of staff members who conducted the bus evacuation drills.

Although Rea recognizes the value of holding get-together type events like the picnic, he focuses on the agency’s accountability to its school district members and the public in general.

“We try to keep that kind of stuff at a minimum, because we’re cognizant of the taxpayers’ contribution,” Rea says.

Fleet Facts
School buses: 140 (92 large, 48 small)
Students transported daily: 3,500
Districts served: 16
Staff: 108
Annual mileage: 1,352,176
Area of service: 1,500 sq. miles


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I just want too say that I once had the privilege to work for Mike Rea.Good guy/boss.

guy woodward    |    Jul 24, 2011 03:13 PM

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