If you have ever dreamed of building a new transportation center, there are many things you and your team need to consider before putting pen to paper. This article will highlight some of the lessons we learned in building our new facility in 2019. Key areas to consider include studies, committees, needs vs. wants, concepts, site locations, neighbors, logistics, plans, and pitfalls to avoid.
It is often helpful to have a study conducted by an outside organization familiar with school operations to review and assess the building condition, school district growth, and internal operations before setting out to build a new facility. Studies can help identify key areas that should be considered before spending large amounts of money on a new facility. This is an important step as it helps position the district or organization in a way that they are not the only ones who think a new facility is in order. Conducting a study is part of doing your due diligence to your stakeholders. A study can confirm the positive things your operation is doing and identify any areas for improvement based on best practices. This information gathered from the study is critical to learn from, prior to building a new facility. Some of the report recommendations can be used in the design of a new facility and help improve safety and operations for your staff. As an example, some of the items that might be identified include workflow for handing out keys, punching-in and out, message boards, employee flow into and out of the building, etc. A quality study can also assess potential building site locations within your school district or region.
Selecting the right people for a new transportation facility committee is important. Looking at your potential stakeholders at the beginning is very important in getting proper buy-in to a capital project. Community members from your town/village/city, first responders, businesses, neighbors, parents, and employees are helpful to have involved in the early stages of a project. The committees and their composition should be thoroughly thought out in advance and getting people on board early will go a long way in building positive relationships. Seeking out community members with Lean and Six Sigma experience can greatly help identify processes that restrict flow and produce consistent results. Lean processes can create a way to efficiently hand out keys to employees while monitoring their fitness for duty. Six Sigma can ensure that dispatchers can visually see which buses are regular-route buses compared to spare buses, providing a better idea of when a driver has not showed up for their daily assignment(s).
Many school districts in urban and suburban areas are limited in selecting their locations to build a new transportation center. In our case, we had twelve district-owned locations, but were limited in our options either due to the cost of available space or covenants on land use. There are also challenges for school districts in acquiring new land. Getting school board approval and voter authorization to acquire new land for a capital project can be a lengthy process. School districts and operators with limited available land within a district call for being very creative with the land resources you already have. We faced this issue and ended up needing to build a larger building on our existing 6.83-acre transportation site. Our original building was just under 11,000 square feet and the new building is just over 20,000 square feet. This required us to build within 10 feet of the existing transportation building. We needed to remove unsuitable soils and put down stone to create a solid base and raise the east end of the property elevation by 6 feet.
Some challenges of building on-site include relocating the fleet to another location at certain points of the project. Once the buses could be brought back on site, we needed to shuttle drivers and attendants from an off-site location where they parked their personal vehicles to the existing facility. This creates added costs for the district and stresses for transportation employees. We were fortunate that we could house employee vehicles at our ninth-grade school located 1.3 miles away from the Transportation Center. Transportation employees are inquisitive and clear safety protocols need to be shared for their safety. Making sure employees understand the construction site is off-limits is important for their safety and insurance requirements.
Needs versus Wants
The clearer an operation is in what they need vs. what they want will help reduce unnecessary costs and time required to make changes down the road. A priority should be placed on discussing what the needs of the department are, knowing that this new building will last 50-plus years. Is your district facing declining enrollment or a boom in student enrollment? What is the financial climate like in your district or company? Are there safety issues that must be addressed? In our old building we had concrete ceilings in the garage. However, the concrete was 50 years old and starting to deteriorate to the point where small pieces were falling on the ground. Falling concrete is a serious safety issue. Are the dimensions of your older building not conducive to the safety of employees and guests? Our old building was designed for 55 passenger buses. Ten years ago we made a move to 71 passenger buses and they would only fit on one of the three in-ground lifts. Additionally, the space between the rear door of the bus and garage door of the building was so tight a person small in stature could barely squeeze between the bus and garage door. In the case of an emergency, this could be a safety issue if a person had to quickly walk around the bus in the case of a fire or emergency. Working bay heights can be an issue in older maintenance facilities. Our small wheelchair buses could not be fully lifted as the heights of the flat-floored buses are taller than many of the earlier-designed buses.
This is where an efficiency study can really help sell the need of a department to upper administration and the community when considering building a new transportation center. Having outside experts explain the importance of certain items that are crucial to the operation is usually more accepted by communities. The planning team needs to be realistic in knowing what their community can support. Just because your neighboring district built the “Garage Mahal” does not mean that your district or organization should build one as big or better. A lot can be learned by doing site visits to newer facilities built in the last 10-20 years. Excellent design concepts should be emulated where possible considering your target budget and site location challenges. As an example, safety and security is a need while having a mezzanine for storage may be a want. The more time spent fleshing out your needs, the better. Transportation departments need to look critically at the ways their operations run and how a new building can improve safety and their work flow.
Once the needs vs. wants are identified, architects can develop conceptual drawings. These drawings need to be studied thoroughly and walked through with stakeholders so they can identify what looks good and what will not work. This is a critical function to help provide the designers with guidance on the look and feel of the proposed new site. It is also important to convey to the public when sharing conceptual plans that these are renderings and design changes may occur. It is not unusual for the community or staff members to believe that the initial plans shared will be exactly like the finished product. Quite often small architectural details that really make a building stand out are costly. As an example, the canopy for the fuel island was conceptually a pitched roof. It looked very classy and fit into a pleasing structure. However, as the project went along cuts needed to be made and often these “nice to have” items cannot be afforded. In our case, the canopy was downsized to the style that you would see at a local gas station. Practical, yes…visually attractive for those that like straight lines, it is beautiful.
Involving your neighbors early in the process can be helpful. Know that most people living next to your existing transportation center may not be excited to see a new facility near their homes. The old saying “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) will be implied if not outright said. This is despite the fact that most transportation centers were there before most or all the neighbors moved in. In our case, we have a small footprint for 100-plus buses and one acre of the land is unused as it is a barrier for the neighbors to the north. Striking a balance with the neighbors is important to maintain good relationships. The more advanced planning and interactions, the better.
Once the plans are submitted to the district or operator, it is critical that employees have access to review and make suggestions to the drawings early on. Ideally, you need to have someone who is familiar with reading the blueprints along with people from Buildings and Grounds and the mechanics/technicians. This is critical as time spent here will reduce the number of costly change orders down the road. As an example, specifying the best in-ground lift(s) for your operation is important as the lowest priced unit(s) is not always the most cost effective option if the lift is out of service when you need it to be up and running. Other details include locations for hose reels, products to be dispensed from the reels (oil, antifreeze, DEF, washer fluid, water, etc.). Above ground reels can save time and money in the long run by increasing staff efficiency when servicing the buses and other vehicles. Attention to the smallest of details will save money in the long run. Many garages have mirrors strategically located to allow staff to view the lights of the vehicle from the driver’s seat. We like round ones as they have very little distortion. The mirrors that were specified were shaped like rectangles with rounded ends. The staff did not like them as they were distorted and we needed to replace them after the fact. Other small items include the number of internal hose bibs on the perimeter of the building. Are there enough inside the building? Are any hose bibs located outside for the driving staff to use when a student becomes ill on the bus? If you are installing a wash bay, are you specifying stainless steel for doors and door frames? If not, the soap and chemicals will eat away the metal in a few years. How does the facility lighting affect your neighbors? Designing spaces that effectively light work areas and parking spaces is important while not unnecessarily spilling light on to neighbors’ properties. These small details are important and the more eyes you have on these plans early on, the better.
Pitfalls to Avoid
One of the major pitfalls is to come up with a budget figure before identifying the needs of the district or operator. I get it, there is only so much money to spend in tight times and any dollar spent on transportation is not one spent in the classroom. However, safety and efficiency can pay a district back handsomely down the road by having their employees work in a facility that supports their functions. Our goals are to transport our students safely to and from school. A safe and efficient transportation center will provide employees with the tools needed to route the buses efficiently, conduct effective pre-trip and post-trip inspections in properly lit locations, and support the mechanical staff so they can perform effective preventive maintenance on the school buses and district equipment. This all adds up to safer transportation with less downtime for students and staff.
Building a new transportation center is a collaborative process. It is a time-intensive and stressful project, but worth all of the efforts invested once finished. Speak with your leadership team, neighbors, and colleagues who have recently built new facilities and bring your outdated facility into the 21st century.
Peter Lawrence, Ed.D. (email@example.com) is the director of transportation for Fairport Central School District in New York, serving students in the town of Perinton and the village of Fairport.