KP School Bus Connects brings an innovative transportation solution

Sara Thompson From left, bus driver Crystal Petesch, Marsha Harris, program coordinator; Craig Sherman, PSD transportation; Annie Bell, PSD transportation director and Danna Webster, KP Council co-president, gathered at the district bus barn last year to make route adjustments for the Key Peninsula School Bus Connection. Recently Harris and the Puget Sound Educational Service District wrote a grant for to continue the program and add a third day of bus service this coming year By Scott Turner, KP file photo

In our almost-island setting, 23 miles long and with countless winding back roads, how do Key Peninsula residents get around without a car? If this is like any other rural community, the car is just about the only option, and around 30 percent of residents depend on friends and family for transportation.

KP School Bus Connects, an innovative program using school buses three times a day, is a creative program that helps people get around.

In 2007, The Mustard Seed Project asked seniors to identify their most pressing barriers to aging in place. Transportation was the major concern. That year, The Mustard Seed Project joined the Pierce County Coordinated Transportation Coalition —by far the smallest organization in a group that included Sound Transit. Connections formed through the coalition led to a number of initiatives to meet transportation needs.

In 2010, Pierce Transit faced funding deficits and determined that the ridership of the bus on the Key Peninsula was too low. The route was cancelled.

The Mustard Seed Project, working with the Puget Sound Educational Service District, applied for a KP School Bus Connects pilot. Using school buses when students were not being transported, service began in November 2011. Community transportation was offered free of charge and targeted underserved populations including seniors, youth, veterans and those with special needs or low income.

The Key Peninsula Community Council took over administering the program in 2013. Marcia Harris, new to the council and with a long work history as a school administrator, including transportation, took over coordination.

“What an opportunity —this was a chance to make transportation available with no need for a significant capital investment,”Harris said. “We take advantage of the school buses already in use, and after drivers deliver students at Vaughan and Evergreen at 8:50 a.m., to return to the bus barn in Purdy, they simply make scheduled stops along the way, ending at Lake Kathryn Center and then at Purdy Park and Ride,”Harris said.

The route is repeated two hours later at 11. In the afternoon, there is a single bus leaving Peninsula High for Purdy Park and Ride and then driving as far south on the Key Peninsula as Evergreen Elementary School.

There is no need to call in advance —riders simply wait at the scheduled stops. For the minimal cost of fuel and the short additional time the driver takes to make the stops en route to the bus barn, residents have access to transportation.

Dorothy Rawls has been driving the bus for the school district for 11 years and has taken the evening route for three.

“It’s a very colorful bunch and pretty entertaining”she said. “I keep signing up for the route each year. I know what the program is about —providing rides to people who really need them.”

Emily Poundstone, a Peninsula High freshman, is a regular on the afternoon route that usually carries about a dozen students.

“This bus has helped me succeed,”she said. “Without it, I would not be able to stay after school to get help or to do extra work when I need to. My parents would not be able to pick me up.”

The use of the program has grown from just one to two riders a day in 2013 to often more than 10 a day since last spring.

Riders use the service for many reasons. Some can no longer drive, some cannot afford a car or have a car that needs repairs. Others are one-car families with the car needed to get to work while other family members have medical appointments, shopping or other transportation needs.

The council has submitted a renewal grant to cover the costs of coordination oversight and marketing. In addition, Harris has requested funds to expand to three days. She is also working with the Red Barn and Communities in Schools to increase outreach to students.

Some Peninsula High students have not been able to participate in after-school activities because they can’t get home —allowing them to use the late-afternoon return bus can make that possible. She also hopes that students from the elementary schools who would like to participate in tutoring could take advantage of a later bus.

During the summer, there was a single bus route three times a day on Tuesdays. One driver managed all three trips, which increased route predictability and consistency.

“There was a real benefit to have a driver become familiar with the regular riders,”Harris said.

Harris is enthusiastic, feeling that this could be a model for other rural communities. She and Annie Bell, who is the director of transportation for Peninsula Schools, hope to share this model and “lessons learned”with other school district transportation directors across the state at their annual conference in late June.