Thursday, August 11, 2005

Prince George’s County school officials are determined to keep track of their school buses this year.

School officials say they will have Global Positioning System (GPS) units installed in all of the county’s 1,357 buses by the time school starts Aug. 22. Officials said the final phase of implementation for the new systems — scheduled to be completed by the school year’s second semester — will allow administrators to track, in real time, the location of each vehicle.

The school system — which transports 97,000 riders each day and has the fifth-highest daily ridership in the nation — is the first in Maryland to outfit its entire fleet with the sophisticated satellite-based tracking systems.

“We’ll know where our buses are at all times,” schools spokesman John White said. “In case of a breakdown or accident there’s no guessing what intersection they’re at. Efficiency is the other thing. When you know exactly how long it takes your buses to run their routes you can plan those routes more efficiently.”

The GPS systems, provided by Nextel, cost about $800,000, Mr. White said. The school also will pay for ongoing costs and maintenance associated with the tracking systems.

The systems feature mounted handsets that will be equipped with a tracking application and two-way radio service that allows instant communication among drivers, dispatchers and individual bus lots.

The county outfitted about 15 special-education buses last school year as part of a pilot program. Mr. White said the handsets are mounted in the bus to the driver’s left and are safe to operate while driving.

“The driver never has to touch it,” he said. “If he needs to respond he presses one button.”

Mr. White said the tracking systems relay the buses’ locations, including latitude and longitude, to a map in the school’s communications center, where employees can check to see if a bus is delayed or off course. The systems also show bus speeds.

The District recently outfitted its fleet of 650 school buses, which transport the city’s special-education students, with GPS tracking devices. WJLA-TV (Channel 7) reported that the system cost D.C. Public Schools $1.6 million and will cost about $800,000 a year to maintain.

Some education advocates say they are upset about the high cost of the equipment, approved by the school system’s court-appointed transportation administrator, David Gilmore.

“When you have a special education system that’s so fractured like in D.C., we can’t afford to spend the money on GPS when we can’t afford to have an effective system for the kids being transported,” said Kim Jones with Advocates for Justice and Education Inc.

Mr. Gilmore was not available for comment yesterday.

Fairfax County school officials said only a small number of buses in their system carry the tracking devices.

“We have GPS on some of our buses, but very few,” said schools spokeswoman Mary Shaw. “We would like to expand but right now we don’t have the money to do so.”

Other school systems in the metropolitan area, including Alexandria and Montgomery County, do not have GPS systems installed on their buses. Calls to Arlington County Public Schools were not returned.

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