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Fairfax County school officials recently voiced concerns over the aging of its school bus fleet and the unavailability of adequate parking for buses.

According to a recent schools facility report, “Through the years, finding and keeping adequate long-term parking locations for this size fleet [about 1,500 school buses] has become unmanageable.”

The report, which was presented by staff to School Board members last week, says only 500 permanent parking spots are available for the 1,500-plus buses. During the past school year, buses that did not park in those 500 spots were parked at some 145 locations, a majority of which were at schools. Other locations included the Fairfax County Government Center, the school system’s Gatehouse Administration Center, libraries, fire stations, commuter lots, HOA pool lots, bus drivers’ homes and along public streets where possible.

Parking on school properties becomes an issue when schools host evening or weekend events where more parking is needed. During these events, the Office of Transportation Services receives requests to move the buses to other parking with the understanding that the move is temporary. Some schools have requested permanent removal of buses from their parking lots and school staff said it has become increasingly difficult to find parking that is appropriate.

“I know several of my high schools in Braddock District do house buses on our lots,” School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) said, adding that Woodson High School as well as Robinson and Lake Braddock secondary schools all host buses. “I guess I would say given the challenges we have in our capital improvement budget and trying to purchase land to build schools, I would hope that our county agencies will help to work with [staff] in looking at ways where we have county land to be able to utilize parking spaces.”

Bus parking and maintaining the fleet are a symptom of inadequate capital funding, school officials said. While demand on the school system has increased with enrollment, so have construction costs, which were estimated to have risen nearly 15 percent during the last year, according to school officials.

Bus maintenance of a large fleet is also straining this budget.

“In the short term we may look OK, but in the long-term it’s not a pretty picture,” said Jeffrey Plantenberg, assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation.

The school system’s goal is to replace buses after 14 years of use. With a fleet of FCPS’ size, this means more than 100 buses are retired each year, assuming an even purchasing cycle over years. Plantenberg said a bus costs about $104,000.

When asked if retiring buses rather than maintaining them was more cost effective, Plantenberg said, “It’s really more cost effective to get rid of them. If you look at 1996 model year, we’ve got two left and I know we bought more than two that year.”

As of September 2012, nearly 50 percent of the bus fleet had exceeded the School Board’s 14-year replacement age policy.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com