Tulare County creates new rules, policy for Loop Bus transportation requests
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – The Loop Bus has been providing at-risk youth transportation to and from safe and positive events in Tulare County’s rural communities for more than a decade. And while that hasn’t changed, the free on-demand bus service offered by the County of Tulare has become so popular it can’t keep up with the demand.
Samantha Ferrero, Tulare County’s Step Up coordinator, said the Loop Bus has been operating without a formal policy since it was launched in 2007. In that time, several issues have come up with the operation and use of the bus. The county is seeing an increase in last-minute cancellations, an increasing number of requests for use from school districts which already have access to buses, First Amendment issues with transporting religious groups, and it does not give preference to programs geared toward at-risk youth as it was originally intended.
To get the policy back on board with the Loop Bus’ mission, Ferrero presented a draft policy to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors at its June 5 meeting. Under the new rules: requests for the bus must be submitted at least four weeks in advance; at least one chaperone must be on the bus with students at all times; a minimum of twelve riders and a maximum of one bus (up to 28 or 30 people depending on the bus) per trip; Step Up events, such as the Youth Challenge or Summer Night Lights, will be given priority; and overnight trips and transportation to events “whose sole intent consists of prayer, religious instruction, and/or proselytism” are both banned.
About 30% of the requests in the last six months have come from school districts to transport students to afterschool activities. Ferrero said this can tie up available buses creating a barrier for organizations that do not have access to transportation already and cannot afford private charter services. Ross Miller with the Resource Management Agency (RMA) said even the appearance of competing with school district transportation could cost the district “hundreds of thousands of revenue on an annual basis” in federal funding.
“We don’t want to be an arm of the school district,” said Supervisor Steve Worthley.
The supervisors agreed with most of the changes but thought that the three restrictions should be amended further. Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said suspending an entity one month for four last-minute cancellations was letting people off too easy. “The punishment needs to be more severe than that. After four no-shows they shouldn’t be able to use it for a year.”
Vander Poel also said banning school district use of the Loop Bus was going to far. He said elementary schools are often the only structured organization in rural communities, such as Alpaugh and Allensworth. He said he was supportive of restricting use of the Loop Bus during school hours, when schools have contracted services for transportation, but wanted to make sure the bus was still available for to non-profits operating at the school such as afterschool programs and PTA groups.
Supervisor Kuyler Crocker questioned the hours of operation which were proposed as 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekends. Crocker questioned how the bus would provide transportation to Saturday Night Live events that go past that time. Staff said the hours and no service holidays were chosen to bring them in line with other county services to reduce overtime and control costs. The Loop Bus will be available on some holidays including the observances of birthdays of Martin Luther King, Jr., President’s Day, as well as the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Those days will operate on weekend hours. No service will be provided on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, Labor Day and Memorial Day.
Vander Poel motioned to approve the new policy and it was seconded by Supervisor Amy Shuklian. The motion passed unanimously after Worthley asked staff to look into ways to remove a restriction that the Loop Bus cannot go to areas over a 2,000-foot elevation.
“Two-thirds of our county is in the mountains and we have a county park above that elevation,” Worthley said. “For many of these at-risk kids they’ve never seen a giant sequoia tree at that makes it a reasonable utilization for the Loop Bus.”
Miller said driving over 2,000 feet in elevation requires a special license by the state which Loop Bus drivers do not have. Staff was asked to see if there is anyway to partner with the Sequoia Shuttle to take at-risk youth on trips beyond the elevation mark and to return with a report at a later date.