MTD: Bus cost could double with Interstate Drive school site
CHAMPAIGN — A new Central High School on the northern edge of Champaign could double the cost of transporting students on city buses and require several million dollars worth of new vehicles, according to preliminary calculations by the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District.
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The school district pays the MTD $315,516 annually to bus students to and from school, and that figure would rise to an estimated $700,000 if the new high school is built at Neil Street and Interstate Drive, MTD Managing Director Karl Gnadt told The News-Gazette on Thursday.
That site would also require six new buses, as there are no MTD routes serving that area currently and more students would qualify for bus service, Gnadt said. The estimated cost is $4.2 million, though a large chunk of that could be offset by federal grants.
The figures were prepared by the MTD for an interagency study underway on the long-term costs and implications of the two primary school sites studied, at Neil Street between Olympian Drive and Interstate Drive, and at Spalding Park.
The report is still being completed, officials said Thursday.
Gnadt emphasized that the figures are "just a spitball, back-of-the-envelope" estimate, in part because high school district boundaries will change under a redistricting planned in the next few years, before the new school opens. It also doesn't take into account possible changes in school start times, which could also mitigate costs.
"None of this is meant as a criticism. I am completely sympathetic and understanding of the school district and where they are in the balancing act that they're trying to successfully complete. They're in a tough spot, and I get that," Gnadt said. "These are just numbers. It's just reality."
School Superintendent Judy Wiegand said the figures are preliminary, and could change with redistricting and other factors as the project moves ahead.
For instance, the school district is considering adding to its own fleet of buses to meet some of the cost, she said.
"Those are all things that we're investigating and making sure that we compare those costs and go in with the most cost-effective way," Wiegand said.
She was reluctant to comment further, as she had not yet seen the figures or the cost assumptions behind them.
There are several reasons for the extra costs with Interstate Drive, Gnadt said:
— More students would need to use the bus, so more vehicles would be required. With Central's current location at 610 W. University Ave., more students live near the school and don't require busing, he said.
"We have a greater area and distance to cover," he said. "We're carrying more students."
— The current location sits on or near existing city bus routes, so the school district shares the cost with MTD — paying only the incremental cost of diverting buses a block or two to Central or adding another bus to the route.
— There is no service to the Olympian Drive site, and the MTD had no plans to add it in the near future, Gnadt said, so any service would fall to the school district to cover, he said.
"We just don't have any ridership generators up there, outside of the school," he said.
Gnadt said the costs at Spalding "are not going to be significantly different from what they are for the current Central site," as it, too, can be mostly accommodated with existing city routes.
Who would pay for the new buses? "That's the million dollar — actually that's the 4.2 million dollar — question," Gnadt said.
Typically, the MTD applies for federal grants that pay 80 percent of the cost of a new bus, and either local or state funding covers the rest, he said. But if those resources have to be used for six new buses, it will cut into the money available to replace other aging buses, he said. The MTD has about 33 buses "at the end of their useful life right now," he said.
School board member John Bambenek said cost figures are "in the ballpark of what we were expecting" and have been built into cost projections for the new high school.
He said redistricting would reduce those costs — for instance, if a student in Savoy is sent to Centennial instead of north Champaign. Redistricting likely won't be done until 2018, when the new school would open, he said.
He also said the added cost could be offset in part by the $194,000 the district expects to save if the Family Information Center and other administrative programs are consolidated at the current Central building.
Gnadt conceded that the figures could change "pretty dramatically," though he doesn't expect the costs to go down much.
The goal is just to provide the school district with information to make a sound decision, he said.
"If the Olympian Drive site turns out to be the site, I'll be behind them," he said.