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February 28, 2014  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How to cut costs by mastering time and space, part 1

Manipulating time and space to optimize system design sets a foundation for efficiency in special-education transportation. Here is an introduction to the concept — and three examples in which its application could have saved countless dollars.

by Ned Eistein

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Author Ned Einstein says that a key principle in system efficiency is the provision of regularly reoccurring trips.
<p>Author Ned Einstein says that a key principle in system efficiency is the provision of regularly reoccurring trips.</p>

Poor use of storage yards
Shortly after the turn of the century, I helped an East Coast district examine some issues haunting its special-education system from a class action lawsuit.

While it would take an entire book to even gloss over the challenges that lawsuit created, I was struck by a single aspect of the system and the astonishing explanations for it I received.

The huge service area encompassed hundreds of square miles, yet the district stored hundreds of vehicles in five storage yards scattered randomly throughout the service area.

When I asked where the “boundaries” were for each storage location’s “service area,” management did not even understand the question. Simplifying it, I then asked, “What’s the farthest distance from a typical storage yard that you would transport a student?”

I was assuming, naively, that the students would be transported by those vehicles stored pretty much closest to their origins or destinations. Instead, I was told not only that the sole determinant of a storage yard’s location was the availability of one that was affordable, but also that, otherwise, there was no rationale whatsoever linking any trip for any student to any storage yard.

In other words, this system — which was carrying an average of four students per vehicle when they all traveled and which was deploying mostly full-size school buses — had no rationale whatsoever for pairing vehicles with the origins or destinations of its passengers spread throughout a huge area.

We could only wonder about the extraordinary amount of deadhead time and resources wasted, much less the unnecessarily long ride times that many of these special-education students experienced — even though the lawsuit’s consent decree placed limits on this parameter that effectively undermined its efficiency.

I felt intuitively that roughly 20 to 30% of the system’s entire budget flowed down the sewer from this single failure alone.

A move could have saved money
For 10 years, I directed a 70-vehicle paratransit system in a suburban and rural service area in northern Los Angeles County.

Roughly one-sixth of our 950 physically and developmentally disabled adults and infants in the lower San Fernando Valley service area attended a single program located in the far eastern corner of it. More than 60% of them lived west of the 405 Freeway, which effectively split “the Valley” into an “East Valley” and “West Valley.”

Many of this program’s attendees were forced to ride for more than 90 minutes one way. Intimately familiar with every color-coded client and program on my 11- by 7-foot map of the service area, I spent one weekend rerouting all 950 “dots” — with the single, out-of-the-way program “relocated” to the center of the service area.

I told my lead agency that if it moved this single program to the center of the Valley, I could save it $38,000 a month (in a $6 million per year program). They responded by pointing out that they were using the existing facility “rent free.” When I asked them what the rent would likely be for a similarly sized building located in the center of the service area (my guess, in 1985, was $3,000 a month), they changed the subject.

In other words, this anointed guardian of the state’s treasury simply had no interest in reducing its transportation costs by a full 10% if doing so required them to pull their collective hands from beneath their collective … well, you know.

School choice created chaos
Several years ago, the educational intelligentsia in a Florida county decided that competition between schools would improve the quality of their education. As a consequence, they abandoned their scores of small, concise school districts and instead allowed any student to attend any school within the entire 308 square miles of the school district.

The chaos this decision wrought on the transportation system was not only a cost fiasco, but a safety fiasco. As an expert witness, I effectively walked away from defending the school district in its third and fourth crossing fatalities.

Cost-wise, the negligibly expanded budget to perform this insanity was so grossly underfunded that no live humans had time to personally examine any of the stops selected by a software program that ignored amenities like crossover bridges.

When, under intense political pressure, the district’s transportation staff was actually ordered to physically examine each stop, they found 300 as dangerous as the 10-lane, un-signalized intersection of a 70 mph highway with two staggered, intersecting cross streets that led to one of the cases I effectively walked away from. (In that location, elementary school-age students were forced to dash across five freeway lanes in between gaps of high-speed traffic to reach a median strip full of broken sewerage pipes, barbed wire and piles of jagged garbage.)

The cost in safety was obscene. But the cost of service, had it even been provided intelligently — which the board’s policy pretty much made impossible — was impossible to even estimate.

Many trips to and from school that had previously involved a handful of miles — when they were not within walking distance — now escalated into 10- to 20-mile trips “as the crow flies.” And the rides were obviously much longer, time-wise, because the full-size school buses on which these students rode now meandered through a maze of origins and destinations in all directions within the huge service area to bring their students to their selected schools.

The transportation realities were so overwhelming for the students that they operated as a constraint to force them back to attending schools much closer to where they lived, defeating the educational purpose of the folly that triggered this temporary exodus to begin with.

In addition to a handful of wasted lives, the monetary costs of this experiment — the transportation department obviously overran its budget by a huge margin — were obscene.

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