Closure of an interstate highway means many things: traffic backups, lengthy detours, confusing back roads, and a constant headache for the frequent traveler. But what does it mean for school buses when the dependable flow of interstate traffic is the lifeblood for an entire transportation operation?
That's exactly the question the St. Louis-based Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC) had to address when the Missouri Department of Transportation announced the two-step closure of a 10-mile stretch of I-64, five miles per year from January 2008 through December 2009.
What's more, VICC isn't an ordinary district; it isn't really a district at all. Rather, VICC is the result of a 1981 desegregation directive by the U.S. Court of Appeals, responding to a 1972 lawsuit, stating that the St. Louis Public School Board of Education and the State of Missouri were maintaining a segregated school system through a voluntary interdistrict plan. The directive meant that students would need to be moved between city and county schools, and that's where VICC came into play. The closing of I-64, however, risked crippling the entire operation.
"We were concerned with kids getting to and from school on time," says Paul Tandy, communications director for Parkway School District, a member district of VICC and one particularly affected by the closure, as I-64 runs directly through it. Of Parkway's 18,000 students, 2,500 are from the city and use VICC transportation. These were students who already had long bus rides from the city, who were, in many cases, walking to the bus stop in the dark. Waking up any earlier would have impaired their ability to learn, Tandy notes.
It was communication and extensive planning that saved the day. "My first reaction was to gain a better understanding of the project and what it entailed," recounts Tami Webb, operations manager for VICC. After contacting the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODot), she was put in touch with Linda Wilson, a MODot spokeswoman, who then came to meetings with VICC staff to give an overview of the project. Local school district transportation directors were invited to attend the meetings so they would have the necessary information.
Next, Webb arranged for Wilson and her staff to meet with the VICC board, comprised of 16 district superintendents and a St. Louis Public School representative, to brief them on the upcoming closure. "Linda and her staff also attended parent meetings and district meetings upon my request at districts whose transportation I felt would be most impacted by the closure," Webb says.
Webb and her team made sure to keep the community—parents, students, administrators, teachers—apprised of new developments and subsequent responses through meetings, mailings and phone calls. Through constant communication, VICC was able to make the necessary adjustments to route schedules, adding buses and taxis where necessary, without requiring schools to alter their bell schedules.
"In a way, we overplanned and overworried," Tandy recalls. "But that was the reason for the success. People were so aware that they already had their [alternate] routes planned."
It was the flexibility of the entire community that made what could have been a disaster into a success, Tandy says. "A lesson learned is to prepare families and faculty in the schools that you're going to have to be flexible for a period of time. There's no silver bullet to solving this issue."
Words of advice from Tandy: "Develop relationships with your local community and planning committees and make sure you are put on the mailing lists for any upcoming projects with your state's transportation agency," Tandy says. "And make sure the community is ready to readjust to the old routines when things go back to normal."