New bus hubs along Highway 93 South promote safety

Reporter | December 23, 2020 1:00 AM

Red lights are flashing on a school bus as it begins to slow along U.S. Highway 93 South. Some vehicles nearby slow down and stop alongside the bus, others blow by around it, disregarding the law, and the cars traveling the opposite direction of the bus hesitate in confusion.

This is a problem that the Whitefish School District, and many others, have been dealing with for years. In the Flathead Valley education of traffic laws involving school buses has increased significantly in recent years, but Whitefish School District Transportation Director Josh Branstetter says the problem wasn’t easing.

This fall the district started looking into implementing bus stop hubs along Highway 93 South in order to increase safety along the busy corridor. Rather than using stops that have buses stopping on the highway, buses pull into the hubs where students can load and unload away from traffic.

As of mid-November the district had successfully eliminated all stops on the highway and created four hubs in different locations off the highway where students can be safely picked up and dropped off.

“I think [the education] was a valiant effort, but short term,” Branstetter said as he explained the district’s reasoning for creating the hubs.

The four hubs that now exist include two previous stops — Church Drive and Meadow Lane’s intersection with Antelope Trail — and two brand new hubs — Midway Mini Mart and a parking lot at East Blanchard Road. The families that live along the corridor are able to choose which hub best suits their needs.

The school district contracts its bus service through Rocky Mountain Transportation, the company’s owner Dale Duff and his staff were in charge of reaching out to every family that would be affected by the change.

Duff said that despite a slight inconvenience added to parents to transport their children to the hub locations, the families he talked to were on board with the hubs as they understood the true safety issue created by buses stopping on the highway.

“It’s just a better thing to do, it’s gotten so busy here in the Flathead that it’s the safest thing and best thing to do is establish these hubs,” Duff said. “With drivers, they’re more comfortable with [the hubs] of course so they don’t have to stop on the highway, run the risk of being run into. The parents we’ve talked to are more comfortable with that too. So it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Duff added that Highway 93 South sees 20,000-plus vehicles per day and gets busier every year. He agreed with Branstetter, saying that despite numerous educational efforts safety remained an issue and the bus hubs are the best solution.

U.S. 93 South is an especially confusing highway in terms of stopping for buses, noted Branstetter, because between Whitefish and Kalispell when to stop for a bus changes depending on the section of highway making education difficult.

Near Whitefish and near Kalispell, it is an undivided highway thus requiring motorists to stop in both directions when a bus is stopped with its red lights flashing. However, the highway around the Midway Mini Mart is a divided highway and thus only motorists traveling in the same direction as the bus are required to stop.

Branstetter, Rocky Mountain Transportation and several Whitefish School Board trustees researched bus hubs as a potential solution. School districts in Bozeman and Missoula successfully created bus hubs several years ago and Branstetter looked to those districts for advice on how to do the same for Whitefish.

The bus hubs had to be completely off the highway, and also had to be an area safe to pull in and out of during all seasons. Branstetter and some school board trustees took a field trip in an empty bus to discover the best places for stops.

Another issue was the potential for parents who couldn’t make it to the hub at the time of pickup or drop-off to send their kids walking to the hubs which would create a whole new safety issue.

“That was the biggest hurdle we were trying to avoid is, I can’t make it to the hub so why don’t you just walk,’’ Branstetter said. “So we made a commitment with each parent saying if you can’t make it to the hub, then don’t send them on foot.”

According to both Duff and Branstetter, there have not been any complaints of how the bus hubs are working and no reports of issues with kids walking to the hubs.

Branstetter hopes that by creating the bus hubs students, drivers and the community as a whole will all benefit.

“I hope it brings a complete sense of safety,” he said. “To not have to worry about things that are out of our control on the highway. If we eliminate those pieces by using the hubs then hopefully it’s just providing a sense of safety for our students and families, and also the Flathead community in general.”