Anchorage School District, AK

‘I have to reroute. There’s a moose at the stop’: Moose, Lynx and Bear, Oh My! Anchorage Picks Transfinder as it Deals with more than just a driver shortage

Anchorage School District, AK

Having the responsibility of transporting more than 22,000 students daily in some of the harshest conditions, one of the first actions Heather Philp took as leader of the Anchorage School District transportation department was to replace an outdated VersaTrans routing product with a more robust and user-friendly solution.

After seeing Transfinder’s Routefinder PLUS, she looked no further.

Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska with about 300,000 people and 2,000 square miles of terrain. By that measure, it is the fourth largest land area in the United States and larger than the entire state of Rhode Island by 500 square miles.

”We are a very difficult district,” she said. “We have a lot of deep, different types of routing that we do. It’s not your basic home-to-school [activity]. We do a lot of in-between pieces.”

She added:

“One thing about Anchorage, you have one road in and one road out. We stretch out, from point A to point B about 80 miles.”

Just as her buses cover a lot of ground each day, Philp covered a lot of ground looking at multiple routing products to replace her antiquated routing system. When she saw Transfinder’s Routefinder PLUS, she knew it was the right solution for her district. Her IT team agreed.

“I started out as a driver and worked my way through,” said Philp, who has been with the district for 23 years.  She’s been a dispatcher, a safety supervisor and is now, for the past five years, the department’s senior director.

Because of that background, Philp understands the needs of each member in the transportation department better than most, as well as the complexities of the geography that includes extreme mountainous spots that require four-wheel drive buses and on-the-fly adjustments to moose sabotaging bus stops.

Add to that a driver shortage and it becomes clear why she began laying the groundwork to bring Transfinder technology to the district.

The back story
More than four years ago, after Philp was promoted to the senior director position, she began to take a closer look at what routing system the department was using to map out routes for these 22,000 students attending some 80 school buildings in the district.

What was found was disconcerting.

“My routing system at the time, it was pretty antiquated. It was 1998 VersaTrans, server based,” she said.

Philp started looking for something new. Attending national transportation conferences and conducting her own research, she knew there had to be something better out there.

“Then when COVID happened and we were doing Chromebook deliveries and food services and all kinds of different stuff, the system was ready to implode on us,” she said. Philp credits her team with making due with what they had.

“My routing team, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but they are amazing,” Philp bragged. “They made that system do things that even the service team couldn’t figure out …”

Besides having an antiquated system, Philp said the support was lackluster.

“They just kept blowing us off,” she said. She knew the district had to make a change and she looked at a number of providers, including taking a fresh look at VersaTrans. Her IT team also conducted research.

The other companies’ solutions were not any more extensive than what the district already had. Philp remembers one salesperson of a company promising artificial intelligence would be “the magic button.”

“We kept saying, ‘There is no ‘magic button’ to routing … there is no magic button in transporting students.” And two companies didn’t even return phone calls inquiring about their systems.

Following their research, district leaders decided to take guidance from Philp and her team and go with Transfinder instead, a decision Philp is very pleased about.

“Transfinder stood out,” she said. “They stood out for many reasons. Transfinder had a lot of pieces that were new and exciting.”

Aspects of Routefinder PLUS the Anchorage transportation likes include:

  • The ability to pull up multiple routes at one time
  • The fact that it is web-based and can be accessed via any browser so the information is more readily available
  • The potential to route using a tablet for quicker turn around

These improvements alone make routers’ jobs easier and routes more efficient.

“In VersaTrans, you had one route open and you’d have to shut it down to open the next one. There was really no looking to see what kind of merging would happen,” Philp said. “Sometimes you were crisscrossing each other.”

Worth the wait
It would be four years before Philp received the go-ahead to purchase Transfinder’s award-winning solutions.

“Our district is pretty slow, but when I made it very clear that if we didn’t make some kind of switch soon that we wouldn’t be getting kids to school, they finally listened,” Philp said. “And after all their research, they decided that Transfinder was the correct one to go with as well.”

They had to get it right because of Anchorage’s unique attributes, a diverse district where more than 100 languages are spoken within the student body. The landscape is also diverse with a mix of mountains and coastal areas, the largest city in the state, a ski resort and a large state park. And being 61 degrees north – more north than Oslo, Stockholm or Saint Petersburg, Russia – its weather is notorious.

“We bus in some of the harshest weather. We can get down to negative 30 degrees at times,” Philp said matter-of-factly. “We can get up to two or three feet of snow at times. So, you never really run on pavement from October to March or April. You’re snow-packed, most of your roads.”

Before the students get on the bus, when temperatures are below 0, members of Philp’s team come in and start the buses.

“By Alaska state requirements, you have to have the interior at least 42 degrees before you can pick up students,” she said.

You read that correctly, 42 degrees.

“Timing is of the essence for us,” Philp said. “We want to make sure that buses are ready so we have a team that’ll come in and pre-trip multiple buses. So, if a driver comes in and their bus isn’t good to go, they can just jump into another bus that’s already been pre-trip to go pick up students. Any delays can be detrimental to families when you’re cold or it’s snowing or even with the rain. Families don’t like late buses.”

That is a universal truth. Not so universal are the obstacles the buses have to contend with. Beyond the extreme mountains and frigid temps are bears, lynx and moose.

“I think our biggest obstacles are wildlife,” Philp said. “These are animals that we see often in our neighborhoods, where our kids are waiting for buses. You’ll get a call that says, ‘I have to reroute. I can’t drop off my kids because there’s a moose at the stop. Kids are taught to be cautious and drivers are taught to watch out for those kinds of situations before letting kids off buses. That’s probably the biggest uniqueness about transporting in Alaska … other than the hills and weather. It’s just part of the game up here.”

Driver shortage and other challenges
The makeup of its routes is distinctive as well. While today the district transports 22,000 students to about 80 school buildings on 232 buses, Philp said that doesn’t include charter schools, change could be coming.

“As we find efficiencies through Transfinder’s system, we may look at more available bussing for choice schools. That’s our hope,” she said.

Another piece to the equation is Anchorage contracts with a bus company to handle two-thirds of the transportation. At one point, prior to its new Transfinder Era, the way the district dealt with being down 77 drivers was having what it called “rolling blackouts” where certain regions would not receive transportation for a three-week period.

In just months of using Transfinder’s Routefinder PLUS, the district was able mitigate the impact of the shortage by consolidating runs and eliminating 28 routes.

“And I anticipate we can find even more condensing as we go along, as the team gets more familiar with how everything works,” Philp said.

The district also has Transfinder’s award-winning parent app Stopfinder, the field trip scheduling solution Tripfinder and Viewfinder, which provides a read-only picture of the district’s overall operation as well as details on individual routes and riders.

Philp said the district is also looking at Transfinder’s driver app Wayfinder, which provides both on-screen and audio turn-by-turn directions. State law requires the district to route for every eligible student and only after a student doesn’t take the bus during a two-week period, the stop can be deleted. The result is that some bus runs show 130 eligible students, but in actuality, only 40 students are on the bus.

“It’s really a roll of the dice when we plan our buses,” Philp said. Wayfinder combined with RFID cards to take attendance could be an asset to maximize buses.

But Philp is being methodical about implementing each of these solutions.

“I didn’t want to overwhelm,” Philp said “We want to make sure we got the routing in and all the routing pieces down. Then we would move forward with the next pieces. Eventually, we will have everything that I would like to see come into play.”

When the time comes to make a move on adding a solution, Philp knows Transfinder’s experts will be there to assist.

“The service has been fantastic from, honestly, day one,” she said. “From the first day that I introduced myself to the sales group and all the way through. It’s just been a great experience.”