The new student transportation system that the Hawaii Department of Education is testing out at about 30 schools in the Pearl City and Aiea areas has the potential to significantly slash costs within a few years, preliminary results from the pilot program suggest.

The department is engaging in a complete overhaul of its school bus operations, from procurement procedures to new technology. The new system is part of a drawn-out effort to clamp down on an operation whose cost tripled between 2006 and 2012 to $74 million.

It took two scathing audits, intense pressure from the Legislature and a $17 million budget deficit that left 2,000 kids without rides to school before the department finally came up with a comprehensive plan to cut costs and expand bus services.

Civil Beat investigated the DOE’s runaway bus costs in its series, Taken For A Ride. In 2011, Civil Beat linked an abrupt drop in competition among bidders to soaring school bus costs, an expenditure of public money that nearly tripled between 2006 and 2012 and caused the district to cut other programs to meet the bus companies’ demands.

At least for now, the plan finally put in place by the DOE — which is still in its early stages — is producing results.

According to Raymond L’Heureux, the DOE’s assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services, the “Get on Board” project has already reduced costs by more than $73,000 between August and October in the Central Oahu pilot area. That is a drop from $383,000 to $310,000.

In those three months, the department cut the fleet serving those neighborhoods from 57 buses down to 52. It simultaneously increased afternoon service from around 1,500 children to about 2,700 kids. (There was similar improvement in the morning, when fewer students take the bus.) All in all, savings in the pilot project area could total as much as $390,000 by the end of the school year, a DOE spokeswoman said.

“The efforts are already being felt,” L’Heureux told a group of Board of Education members Tuesday. Once the system is expanded to the 35,000 or so students who rely on bus services, the savings are likely going to be substantial, potentially tens of millions of dollars less than last year’s $74 million price tag.

Meanwhile, the department late last month selected two companies out of six bidders to operate buses across all of Oahu on 305 routes next school year, when the next stage of the project gets underway. Awards for winning bidders Roberts Hawaii and Ground Transport Inc., both local companies, are expected to amount to about $21 million, although final contracts are still being negotiated.

The program will then roll out to all Hawaii schools in 2015-16, barring a change of plans. The department declined to estimate how much money will be saved by the end of the pilot, saying that it’s hard to gauge such things until all contracts are finalized.

L’Heureux has explained that launching the contract process well in advance of the upcoming school year gives companies enough time to review the new requests for proposals and then to bid on those requests, ultimately enhancing competition.

The lack of competition among bidders was a primary reason school bus costs escalated so much and so quickly between 2006 and 2012 and a key part of why both audits urged the department to change its procurement procedures.

The “Get on Board” program also includes new bus routing software that gives the department data snapshots of each student and allows the state to maximize the number of kids on each route. L’Heureux expects the program to help substantially lower costs.

The software, which is already being used in the pilot project area, provides detailed route information on the time and location students catch the bus — data the department never before had access to.

“There was zero technology applied to the enterprise,” L’Heureux said Tuesday.

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