When school bus driver Lauran Fanelli approaches the intersection of Claiborne and Ashburn Farm parkways each weekday morning of the school year, she must make a split-second decision.
If she turns left on her assigned route, she will likely encounter rush-hour backups that could prevent her 40 middle school students from getting to school on time.
If she goes straight, she can take a longer, alternate route with less traffic, but any snarl there means that her students will be even later. Students spend 45 minutes or longer riding Fanelli’s nine-mile route in this suburban area about 40 miles west of the nation’s capital.
While Loudoun County, Va., is one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas, school districts in other high-growth regions are finding it at least equally hard for buses to get students to school on time, and safely, as the number of vehicles on the road surges upward.
And there’s little relief in sight for school officials and commuters.
Today, in early June, Fanelli is warned by fellow drivers that her alternate route is clogged because of construction. Her radio is buzzing with other district drivers volunteering to change their schedules and pick up students who are unaware that their regular buses are stuck in traffic. Fanelli chooses her assigned route, and winds down a two-lane road—one of the few that have not been turned into a four-lane parkway.
Unfortunately, there is no right choice today.
Fanelli applies the brakes and brings her bus to a halt nearly a mile before the last intersection. Ahead, a long line of cars, dump trucks, and other school buses inches toward the same intersection.
“Uh-oh, we’re going to be here a while,” shouts Chris Seamus, a 6th grader. He turns to chat with peers who are playing computer games and listening to music. The temperature and the chatter rise as Fanelli, appearing unfazed by the delay, slips off her blue windbreaker and slides open the driver-side window to allow in the cool morning air.
Administrators and teachers at Belmont Ridge Middle School are used to seeing buses arrive a few minutes late, often as the morning announcements are being read. Last fall, school officials pushed back the starting time by 10 minutes because so many buses were chronically late.
After 25 minutes waiting to reach the intersection, Fanelli’s Bus 305 crosses Route 7, a busy thoroughfare that cuts across the Northern Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, and zooms through another new subdivision before reaching Belmont Ridge—just as the final bell for classes rings.
Loudoun County has seen a population explosion since the early 1990s, going from just over 50,000 residents to about 250,000 today. And its growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future as demand for housing pushes Washington’s suburbs farther and farther outward.
The school system’s enrollment of 44,014 students is more than double the 18,270 students enrolled 10 years ago. Further, the district predicts it will have more than 63,000 students in another five years.
Once a collection of sleepy small towns, the area now has two distinct types of communities. Places on the east side of the county such as Ashburn and Leesburg, the county’s largest town, are seeing rapid suburban growth, with aluminum-sided townhouses—starting around $500,000—and single-family homes springing up on open fields.
The western side of Loudoun County, which butts up to the mountains of West Virginia, still has plenty of farmland. But it’s not immune from growth. Residential development now stretches past Leesburg into quaint, Norman Rockwell-esque towns such as Purcellville and Hamilton. It’s not cheaper to live in these more rural communities, but an $800,000 price tag buys more brick, perhaps two acres of land, and views of rolling hills.
Such growth “keeps the [school bus] routing system in chaos,” says Michael Lunsford, the district’s director of transportation. Each day, his staff pores over computerized maps to design bus routes that pick up the most students while avoiding the most congested roads.
With an average of five new schools opening in the district each year, the transportation division spends its summers overhauling bus routes. Most routes have been downsized, either picking up fewer students or going to one less school, to deal with the increased traffic.
Sandy Dennis, one of three district employees who design the bus routes, spends her days studying the computerized maps and calculating the speeds a bus can travel on the routes. Under pressure to maximize the number of students a bus can pick up while also keeping ride times under an hour, she shows a route she designed that “ties itself in knots,” winding through country roads in the western side of Loudoun County, just to avoid one road with heavy traffic.
“It’s gotten harder every year,” she says. “We have to work with what the driver is able to do, and build in plenty of time.”
In one trouble spot, the district has hired an off-duty police officer at a cost of $30,000 per school year to direct traffic through Purcellville’s main intersection. More than 60 buses pass through the intersection each day, often running late because of back-ups at the intersection. Lunsford calculates that the time for the 60 buses sitting in traffic for 20 minutes a day was costing the district $100,000 a year, after factoring in drivers’ hourly wages and rising fuel costs.
Loudoun has plenty of company when it comes to contending with such growing pains.
A report released in May by the Texas Transportation Institute, which is based at Texas A&M University in College Station, showed that commuters in metropolitan areas are spending many more hours on the road because of traffic, costing each person hundreds of dollars a year in gas and delays. “We hear about it all over the country, in rural, suburban, and especially urban areas,” says Michael J. Martin, the executive director of the National Association of Student Transportation in Albany, N.Y.
Part of the problem, he says, is that half of all students do not ride buses to school, and most of those students are instead driven to school by their parents, thus exacerbating the congestion.
Another contributor to the congestion is the way school sites are planned, some school facility researchers say.
Most high-growth districts are not planning well for schools and are not focusing on building small community schools, says Mary Filardo, the director of the Washington-based 21st Century Schools Fund, a research and advocacy group.
Looking for maximum efficiency, districts tend to build large schools that require more land and must draw students from broader areas, she says. Further, she adds, schools often are built on the edges of new communities because districts are unable to find or afford land in the core of those developments.
The Loudoun County school district’s director of planning and legislative services, Sam C. Adamo, says that the district tries to build its schools within subdivisions. But because of a state law that gives land owners the rights to develop their land as they choose, he says, the district cannot always demand that developers sell it land for schools. Moreover, there is just too much growth for the district to build small schools, he says. Many elementary schools in the county have more than 800 pupils.
“If you were to look at building even more schools, you would need more sites, and your problems increase,” Adamo says. “Our growth is so substantial we don’t see that in the cards.”
Increased traffic congestion has led to other problems: The number of minor accidents in Loudoun County involving school buses has increased in recent years, says Lunsford, the district transportation chief. The district has not, however, had any serious injuries of students or its drivers in several years.
“Everybody’s in a hurry, and that’s a perfect ticket for accidents,” Lunsford says. “The worst thing for someone commuting to work is to see a school bus ahead.”
Bus driver Fanelli says drivers here were shaken earlier this year when a bus from the Arlington, Va., school district collided with a garbage truck, killing two students on the bus and seriously injuring several others and the drivers of the vehicles.
But Martin says statistics show that school buses are the safest form of transportation for students.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one-third of 1 percent of all 410,000 fatal traffic crashes between 1993 and 2003 were classified as school-transportation-related. Eight percent of the 1,488 school-transportation fatalities during that period were “occupants of school transportation vehicles.” Most of the fatalities, 69 percent, were occupants of other vehicles and 23 percent were nonoccupants, such as pedestrians, the data show.
“You see folks doing things, not necessarily out of road rage, but that are poor judgment, like passing a school bus” when children are boarding, Martin says.
Several Loudoun County bus drivers say they often see commuters express their frustrations by waving their hands or giving them the middle finger. They say cars also pass buses illegally, block intersections, and run red lights. Loudoun County allows its bus drivers to report the license numbers of offending vehicles, and the district sends the owners letters reminding them of the traffic laws. The district does not have authority to ticket a driver, however.
Many of the families who moved to this area because they want good schools and a safe environment for their children now worry about the growth and traffic.
Rachel Hughes says her 6-year-old daughter, Willow, loves to ride the bus because she can socialize with other kindergartners. But Hughes is concerned about the high number of students who share the bus, which picks up kindergarten classes from several schools, and the driver’s difficulty controlling pupils’ behavior.
She says she and several other parents recently called the district because one child was bullying, kicking, and hitting other young passengers, and she feared for the children’s safety. Hughes was disappointed that the district did not take immediate action, and she drove Willow to school for several days until she heard, secondhand, that the disruptive child was placed on a special education bus.
Hughes also says she often sees cars illegally pass buses that are loading students.
“As much of a fantastic, family-friendly community people like to tout this as, they certainly lack respect for the safety laws,” Hughes says. “It all adds up to a big dangerous situation.”
The Loudoun County district is fortunate to have a sophisticated dispatch system to help manage its transportation fleet. The control room, which is a showcase for modern communications, is open 24 hours a day to help monitor security at schools. Up to four dispatchers sit at computers, constantly answering phone calls and monitoring bus radios. This summer the county is hiring one new dispatcher and one person to handle calls for the day shift.
The dispatchers say they have noticed a marked increase in the past two to three years in the number of calls from parents or schools officials with transportation-related concerns.
Many of them can remember starting their careers as bus drivers on rural roads, with faulty radios.
These days, though, the dispatchers also face challenges brought on by a shortage of bus drivers, and often must scramble to find substitute drivers. They even send transportation-department personnel out on routes when drivers are not available. The district budgeted for 512 drivers this past school year, though it typically fell between 30 and 40 drivers short of that total throughout the year.
Loudoun County pays drivers $15.41 an hour, and gives them full benefits and a retirement plan. District officials offer a bonus for referrals and have even resorted to sponsoring a shuttle from Winchester, a rural town about 40 miles west, to bring in drivers. But even as the school system grows, district officials are seeing more drivers move out of the area because of the high cost of living. Not everyone can handle the stress of the job, either.
After Lauran Fanelli makes her final stop, at Belmont Ridge, she parks the bus at another school. She’ll have several hours before the afternoon routes. During the break, she will go home to spend time on her hobby of painting murals on ceramic tiles, which she sells in local galleries.
A former stay-at-home mom, Fanelli was looking for a job that fit with her two children’s school schedules. While driving a bus didn’t appeal to her at first, she was attracted to the schedule and the benefits, and decided to go through the district’s training program.
She’s found that she enjoys shuttling elementary and middle school students, and she’s learned to take the traffic and other challenges in stride. Most of all, the weekday schedule, pay, and convenience to her home in Ashburn are much better than the retail jobs she’d held before.
“If someone told me three years ago I’d be driving a bus, I’d have told them they were nuts,” Fanelli says. “But this is the best job I’ve ever had.”