By Tina Comeau
The operator of Hut’s Transit has applied to the province’s Utility and Review Board (URB) requesting it to allow him to add a bus stop at the high school on Forest Street, to provide students with transportation to the downtown over their lunch hour.
But the Tri-County Regional School Board will be opposing the application when it comes up at a Feb. 5 URB hearing in Yarmouth.
Senior board management says this is because students would be transported in a 15-passenger van, which is a mode of transportation the school board is not allowed to transport students in.
But Gary Hudson, the operator of Hut’s Transit, says there is a difference between travelling long distances on a highway and driving a few minutes on town streets. He questions which is the safer option for students who don’t have other transportation.
“What’s safer?” he asks. “Those kids walking the streets going downtown and being hit by a car, or them going in a vehicle to get downtown safely and back to school on time?”
This opinion is also shared by some board members who, at the board’s Tuesday, Jan. 8, monthly meeting, didn’t fully support the board’s opposition to the URB application.
“The trip is probably one or two kilometres in distance from the Yarmouth high school to downtown,” said Andy Baxter, who understands the concerns with 15-passenger vans and transporting students on the highways over long distances.
But from Forest Street to Main Street?
“I just don't see the issue,” said Baxter.
Board member Ron Hines echoed this.
However Steve Stoddart, the board’s director of operations, said the board has to take into consideration the potential that there could be an accident while students are being transported in one of these vans.
That led to several board members questioning whether the board is liable for students who leave the school property on their lunch hour. The general feeling was no, but a motion was approved to seek a legal opinion.
Meanwhile, board superintendent Lisa Doucet said the board’s concerns are valid. “We feel as a board we have a responsibility to put our voice out there and say that we do have concerns with our students travelling during the school day in a vehicle that we would not be permitted to transport students in.”
She said the board’s position has nothing to do with wanting to prevent students from going downtown for lunch, or the impact this has on the school’s cafeteria, although on the latter point Hudson says he isn’t so sure.
Doucet said it’s strictly a safety issue.
The 15-passenger vans are not considered to be a safe mode of travel for students. Memories of a 2008 accident involving a Bathurst, N.B. boys' basketball team, which resulted in eight fatalities, are still fresh when discussions about these vans are held. The five-year anniversary of that tragic accident was Jan. 12.
But Hudson says this is a different situation.
Hut’s Transit had been providing rides to students earlier in the school year until it was forced to stop. Hudson was transporting 12 to 22 students a day, meaning sometimes he had to use two vans. He charged $2 for a round trip.
Hudson was approached by students and businesses last spring who were concerned over the distance of the school from the downtown. He spoke to some of the school’s administrators before the school year began and they were in favour of the transportation idea. But Doucet says the board was never asked for its opinion.
Hudson says the matter could have been resolved differently. Instead, he claims complaints were made to the URB about what he was doing.
“People can’t understand when somebody is trying to do something good in their community,” he says. “If the businesses don’t get these kids downtown at lunch time they’re not going to be in business.”
Hudson is asking parents who support the service he is willing to provide to write letters that he can present to the URB at the Feb. 5 hearing, which takes place at 1 p.m. at the Rodd Grand Hotel. “If parents don’t have an issue with it, I can’t understand why the school board would,” he says.
Hut’s Transit operates two 15-passenger vans. Both are equipped with seatbelts, they’re regulated and inspected by the province and they’re equipped with snow tires in the winter.
“I understand the safety issue, safety is a concern for everybody, especially me,” says Hudson. “My drivers are trained. They know how to drive, how to load vehicles. We’ve been doing this for 17 years.”