The yellow buses hauling Maryland's suburban and rural students to public school are going 25 percent farther than they did 15 years ago and at more than twice the cost, according to an anti-sprawl group, which contends that poorly planned development is partly to blame.
In a report released yesterday, 1000 Friends of Maryland says bus fleets in the state's counties traveled more than 117 million miles last year, with some counties experiencing increases in overall mileage of 30 percent to 50 percent since 1992.
While the number of students riding the bus grew slightly more than the overall mileage increase, the costs of transporting them more than doubled, the report says, from $215 million in 1992 to $438 million last year.
"We must change development patterns to build more walkable communities closer to schools," Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends, said in a statement released with the report. "That's better for kids and families, and better for Maryland taxpayers."
The cost figures were not adjusted for inflation, but the increase outpaced the growth in the consumer price index during that period. Some of the increase was also rooted in population growth.
Schmidt-Perkins acknowledged that some factors were beyond local officials' control. But she contended that counties could limit their busing costs and improve students' health at the same time by maintaining existing neighborhood schools and building new ones where more students can walk or bike to class.
Citing data from the state Department of Education, the group says that the number of miles Baltimore suburban buses traveled carrying students grew anywhere from 14 percent in Howard County to nearly 50 percent in Baltimore County.
In most counties statewide, the buses also carried more students over the years. But costs grew in five counties where the number of students did not, the report says.
Baltimore City schools were not included in the report because so few of its students ride dedicated buses to classes. About 60 percent of the city's 85,000 students walk to school, according to Don Swift, transportation director, while 32 percent ride public buses with reduced-fare passes provided by the school system. The city buses the remaining 8 percent, many of them special-needs students.
Suburban school system officials said their increased busing costs are a natural consequence of growth in their counties, as well as an increase in the number of services the systems provide.
"We're going to more schools, so therefore there's more time and more mileage involved," said Jim Doolan, Carroll's director of transportation services. "The biggest costs are increase in fuel, increase in mileage, increase in time," he said, plus requirements to transport special-education students.
"You can't have a growing county and not increase your costs," he added.
Baltimore County has seen a slight dip in student enrollment in recent years, but the number of bus routes has steadily climbed. School spokeswoman Kara Calder attributed the growth in bus trips to increasing demand for transportation, fueled in part by the need to bus children to magnet schools and alternative-education facilities sprinkled around the county.
The share of students nationwide who get to school on foot or on a bicycle fell from 42 percent in 1969 to 16 percent in 2001, according to surveys by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
One reason for the decline in walking has been the construction of larger, regional schools, replacing smaller neighborhood facilities. The share of students living within easy walking distance, less than a mile from their schools, dropped from 34 percent in 1968 to 21 percent in 2001.
But even in counties such as Baltimore where development is largely concentrated around the Beltway, busing costs have gone up, Schmidt-Perkins pointed out. That's partly because some schools themselves are not built close enough to neighborhoods or in ways that encourage walking, she contended.
State officials said the O'Malley administration is taking steps to encourage more walkable, community-oriented schools. In the previous six years, seven of 28 new schools approved statewide for state construction funding were outside of areas designated by local and state governments for residential growth.
David G. Lever, the state's executive director of school construction, said officials are weighing more carefully now whether new school sites are inside growth areas and served by public water and sewer.
Even so, some local officials continue to look to build new schools on large plots of land that often can be found only well beyond walking distance of the communities they serve.
Charles County is seeking state help for a new $97.6 million high school on 95 acres donated to the county. The site is in the county's growth zone, and some of the land is wetlands, which can't be developed, pointed out spokeswoman Katie O'Malley-Simpson.
Meanwhile, officials in growing Mount Airy on the Carroll-Frederick border are pursuing an option on 75 acres two miles outside of town for ball fields and a possible school site, according to Councilman Peter R. Helt, who opposes it for being too far away.
Richard E. Hall, state secretary of planning, said his agency is preparing guidelines for local officials that would demonstrate how new schools can be built closer to homes and on smaller plots of land, among other things.
"Generally, if you live in sprawl, it costs more to bus your kids," Hall said.
Sun reporters Arin Gencer and Gina Davis contributed to this article.