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New Transportation Software Aims To Keep Buses Rolling Smoothly



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New Transportation Software Aims To Keep Buses Rolling Smoothly

By Larissa Lytwyn

As parents and administrators remember all too distinctly, the 2003-04 busing system underwent a major four- to three-tier transition. The aim was to save the district $155,000 and utilize buses for optimal occupancy.

For the system to work, Head O’ Meadow, Sandy Hook, and Middle Gate school schedules were shifted approximately an hour and a half later. With some bus drivers still getting to know their routes amidst traffic-heavy afternoons, some elementary-aged children did not return home from school until nearly 5 pm.

Over the next month and a half, the Board of Education and Transportation Department, under former director Mary Kelly, struggled to make the three-tier system work. About $65,000 was transferred back into the budget to add two and half more buses. Routes were tweaked to shorten driving times.

Slowly but steadily, the longest routes were tailored to a maximum 45-minute drive.

Though not perfect, by winter, the three-tier system was working.

In January, the district welcomed new Transportation director Anthony DiLonardo of Waterbury.

A lifelong Waterbury resident, Mr DiLonardo has more than a decade of experience in busing, including an extensive background in driving, route planning, dispatching, and training.

Prior to coming to Newtown, Mr DiLonardo served as Waterbury’s coordinator of transportation.

Upon arriving to the district, Mr DiLonardo was soon fully informed of the town’s four- to three-tier transition.

“Unlike Waterbury, which, as a city, has several established downtown routes, Newtown has 60 square miles within a network of many potential routes,” Mr DiLonardo noted.

Newtown’s “thoroughfares,” such as Main Street, Queen Street, Mile High Road, Glen Road, Toddy Hill Road, Brushy Hill Road, and Boggs Hill Road, are long, winding roads.

Some have tight curves, steep hills, and less-than-optimum paving.

Mr DiLonardo immediately set to work with getting to know the area. He was dissatisfied with the transportation department’s organizational routing software, Trapeze.

“Trapeze was not very Windows-compatible,” Mr DiLonardo said.

He began searching for a more contemporary software program, one that was detailed yet simple to use.

After a few months of research in which he evaluated several different software programs, Mr DiLonardo discovered VersaTrans, a popular system used in several towns throughout Connecticut, including Danbury and New Milford.

New Milford is a town that more closely resembles Newtown than cities like Waterbury and Danbury.

“New Milford has had VersaTrans for 12 years and they absolutely love it,” said Mr DiLonardo. “Danbury got VersaTrans about five years ago, and they have found that it is very accessible, with a lot of capability.”

At its most basic, VersaTrans functions like a mini-Map Quest for Newtown’s transportation system.

Color-coded routes are created along the town’s clearly identified streets and landmarks by typing in its rider’s address.

Newtown schools are designated in bright red; estimated riding times from each stop to its school destination can be calculated through the click of a mouse.

Busy roads that are frequently congested with traffic or construction are marked “hazardous.”

“We had to send VersaTrans all of our town’s maps to create our program,” Mr DiLonardo explained. “It was a bit of a process that took a few weeks.”

Unlike Trapeze, which was acquired in 1998 under an annual fee, the district purchased VersaTrans for $20,500.

The 2003-04 budget was approximately $3 million .

The results, he said, proved to be very thorough.

In its creation of routes, VersaTrans marks each stop with a telltale mark. By clicking on the mark, a window with the riders’ names comes up. Instantly available is the riders’ personal information, including their date of birth, grade, address, contact and medical information, and even indicates which days they might not be riding the bus.

The riders’ route information is also clearly detailed. With a click of the mouse, Mr DiLonardo can identify the route’s driver, the bus numbers the route include, the number of stops each route has, and, again, the estimated riding times from each stop to its school.

“All of the windows with all this information can all be open at the same time,” Mr DiLonardo said.

Further, Mr DiLonardo is able to monitor each bus’s location at any time during a given day. Fuel stations are also identified.

“Everything you need to know is right here at your fingertips,” Mr DiLonardo said.

VersaTrans was implemented from June 28 to June 30 and is accessible through every computer in the transportation department.

After extensive training, Mr DiLonardo has spent the summer creating the 2004-05 school year’s routes and introducing the VersaTrans system to the district’s owner/operators.

“I’ve interacted with owner/operators a lot through my experience in busing,” said Mr DiLonardo, a former driver for Laidlaw. “But this is the first time I have worked with them on this level.”

He called the owner/operator system a “unique bird,” one that is reflective of Newtown’s traditionally neighborly, small-town feeling.

In addition to the implementation of VersaTrans, Mr DiLonardo will be using the same buses to combine students from second-tier Reed and Hawley School within the Hawley district.

Last year, Reed students rode buses at the same time as students were arriving in fellow second tier riders from St Rose, Fraser Woods, and the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School.

“It was really congested,” Mr DiLonardo said. “By putting the Reed and Hawley students together in the Hawley district area, siblings won’t be separated and buses will be used more efficiently. The result is a more time efficient route.”

While there are still always a few last-minute new arrivals and thus additions, Mr DiLonardo said he is “confident” that the VersaTrans system works well and, hopefully, will lead the upcoming school year to an auspicious start.

For questions or more information regarding this year’s bus schedule, contact the transportation department at 426-7613.

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