FORT KENT — Drivers in this northern Maine border town know during the school year Pleasant Street is anything but pleasant around 7:30 a.m. and again around 3 p.m. — peak times for traffic congestion near the high school, elementary school and university.
This year, following the lead of a national freight carrier, the SAD 27 board of directors has issued a voluntary call for all private and district bus drivers to modify their driving routes by making fewer left turns. The modification has already demonstrated its efficiency.
“This year we are faced with dealing with the high cost of fuel, and as such we have taken steps to become more efficient,” SAD 27 Superintendent Patrick O’Neill said in a letter to district residents. “One such idea that has gotten UPS lots of attention is the ‘Don’t Turn Left’ concept.”
In 2007, UPS used route-planning technology to map out delivery driving patterns to minimize left hand turns and decrease time spent idling in traffic waiting to turn.
According to the company’s Web site, the changes shaved close to 30 million miles off delivery routes, saved 3 million gallons of gas and reduced emissions by 32,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of removing 5,300 passenger cars from the road for a year.
“In the course of one year [UPS] saved millions of dollars by following this routine in their daily truck deliveries,” O’Neill said. “Why not try it here in Fort Kent this year?”
O’Neill said the idea was brought to the board by member Barry Ouellette who works with trucks in the northern Maine woods.
“The [SAD 27] board members are concerned about the commitment they made to taxpayers,” O’Neill said. “They want to cut costs where they can without hurting education.”
Those types of cuts, the superintendent said, have come down to the area of transportation in which the board has already reduced the current fiscal year’s budget by $81,000.
A letter went out to district parents, faculty and driving students on Aug. 11, requesting voluntary compliance with the “No Left Turn” concept.
For many drivers and buses, this means instead of approaching the schools on Pleasant Street from the north, they continue on to Market Street and turn right off the bridge onto Pleasant Street and enter the school zone from the south and turn right into the schools.
“This approach will not only save us diesel fuel, it is safe and more efficient.” O’Neill said in his letter. “Buses won’t have to jockey as cars come in from the left and right driveways [and drivers] will also have a clear vision of students walking between parked cars and being dropped off.”
Over at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, President Richard Cost said the idea was a creative one and said it is something he would look into.
“We would want to put all the pieces of it on the table and then take a look at it,” Cost said. “For the [school] district it does sound like they are doing what is best and safest for the town.”
As classes at the university begin with students and faculty arriving and departing at all hours, Cost did say such a policy might not work at UMFK.
O’Neill did not have any hard numbers on how many students drive their own vehicles to the high school but acknowledged in recent years the parking lots are overflowing with students’ cars.
That appears to be changing.
“We are seeing more kids taking the bus this year [and] as winter nears we will probably see more,” he said. “Kids like to cruise but with the price of fuel there are only so many hours they can work part-time jobs to pay for it.”
O’Neill said he has seen firsthand more buses taking the new “No Left Turn” routes and indicated it appears to be easing the traffic congestion around the schools.
“This is voluntary and the bus drivers are not required to do this,” he said. “Our transportation supervisor Peter Saucier told them to do it only if they have time.”
Saucier calls the voluntary policy a win-win.
“We’re combining safety and student transportation,” he said. “From what I’ve looked at I’ve seen a better flow of traffic on Pleasant Street, especially at the elementary school.”
Conservation is something that must start at home, Saucier said. The No Left Turn policy and using available resources are prime examples, he added.
“We encourage parents to have their children utilize the school buses,” Saucier said.
So far two bus drivers have deliberately modified their routes to eliminate most left-hand turns, the transportation supervisor said. Though it is difficult to track actual fuel savings associated with the move, Saucier said the most obvious change is in less traffic congestion.
“We are constantly trying to keep things safe and work with the school board’s policies,” he said.
“It takes everyone’s cooperation to make this work,” O’Neill said. “We hope [people] will give this community effort a try.”