SANDY — The Canyons Board of Education voted Tuesday to postpone a decision whether to end school bus service to Big Cottonwood Canyon in the face of growing safety concerns and dwindling ridership.
The bus route traverses a roadway that Bruce Spiegel, engineering consultant to the Utah State Division of Risk Management, described in a letter to the school district as "unsafe for bus travel."
In late April, Superintendent James Briscoe recommended that the Canyons Board of Education eliminate the route starting this fall, noting its "inherent safety dangers," including steep grades, curves, lack of guard rails, narrowness of the road and increasing use by hikers and bicyclists.
Spiegel wrote in a letter to the school district that "there exists a high probability of a serious unfavorable outcome with the Big Cottonwood Canyon route."
But after hearing from residents of the school district, the school board asked administrators to bring the issue back to the board with more information and options to continue the service, such as contracting with Utah Transit Authority or purchasing smaller vehicles capable of traveling in the steep canyon under winter conditions.
"I'd like us to think about how to solve this problem," said board member Chad Iverson.
Tom Fendler, who lives Big Cottonwood Canyon, said he moved up the canyon about four years ago. A single dad, his son and daughter live with him part time and he works full time, so they rely heavily on the bus service.
"If they discontinue service I don’t know if I can continue in that district or not," he said in an interview prior to the meeting. "I don’t want any more disruption in my kids’ lives."
Karin Peterson, another Big Cottonwood Canyon resident, said her children attend Butler Middle School and Brighton High School and regularly ride the bus.
"I don't know how we juggle that, get them to school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon and have a job," she said.
Peterson said families in the canyon would like the school board to consider the possibility of using a smaller bus or four-wheel drive vehicle instead of a full-size bus.
"We're open to anything. We cannot lose our school bus," she said.
Deborah Myers, whose daughter attends Butler Elementary School, said she had lived in the canyon for 27 years and believes there has been school bus service the entire time.
"We can't really do without it. We made our life choices and our life dreams based on where we wanted to live and the access we were able to have to the Canyons School District through that bus. I always thought it would be there, took it for granted, I suppose," Myers said.
Board President Sherril Taylor, who cast the lone vote against postponing the decision, cautioned about creating an exception for Big Cottonwood Canyon when the school district does not bus students who live in Draper's Suncrest community or Little Cottonwood Canyon, although the district operates a K-5 school there.
"I just caution the board. No good deed goes unpunished," Taylor said.
Leon Wilcox, the school district's business administrator, said safety, not cost, was the driving factor behind the administration's recommendation to end the bus service.
This year alone, there have been two bus slide-offs and a collision with a deer, according to a recap of an earlier board meeting on the district's website.
Fendler said he takes issue with the state engineer's report to the school district.
"It seems to me a lot of risks identified in the report really could be mitigated by training the drivers correctly and then using the equipment they have, appropriately, such as using chains when it is snowy out, things like that," he said.
The route, which runs from the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon to a parking lot at Brighton Resort, is 28 miles roundtrip. It serves students who attend Butler Elementary School, Butler Middle School and Brighton High School.
The superintendent's recommendation was also based on dwindling ridership, which district officials expect will drop below 10 students this fall. The school district is reimbursed 50 percent for bus routes that transport four to nine students.
Fendler said he was heartened that the board decided to spend more time reviewing the issue.
"I think it's good they come back and study different options," Fendler said.