Chugiak bus barn keeps local students moving

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 13:09
  • Reliant Transportation assistant general manager Warren Ulrich at a bus lot in Chugiak on Aug. 31, 2017. The Anchorage School District transportation company keeps more than four dozen school buses at its Old Glenn Highway property. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Buses parked at the Reliant Transportation bus lot in Chugiak on Aug. 31, 2017. The Anchorage School District transportation contractor keeps more than four dozen school buses at its Old Glenn Highway property. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • A driver crosses the Reliant Transportation bus lot in Chugiak on Aug. 31, 2017. The Anchorage School District contractor keeps more than four dozen school buses at its Old Glenn Highway property. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Early every weekday morning, long before the first school bells ring, a fleet of buses shifts into gear in a spacious parking lot high on a Chugiak hillside. From there, dozens of drivers head out onto the Old Glenn Highway, bound for bus stops throughout Chugiak-Eagle River. School can’t start without them.

Despite administrative adjustments, shifting schools and classroom changes, some things stay the same.

“We hit the road every day,” said Warren Ulrich, assistant general manager at Reliant Transportation, a transportation contractor for the Anchorage School District.

Part of the district’s transportation network for more than two decades, Ulrich is one of the dozens of people responsible for ensuring Chugiak-Eagle River students arrive at school on time, safe and sound.

Within the district, about 40 percent of buses are owned by ASD, while the remaining 60 percent are owned by Reliant Transportation, a subsidiary of MV Transportation, Inc. In Chugiak-Eagle River, there are about 46 Reliant buses on the road on a typical school day, Ulrich said.

The assistant general manager said he started out as a bus driver 21 years ago. Some of his coworkers have been driving for even longer. After that many years on the road, you notice a few things, he said.

“What’s odd is we’ve actually dropped the number of regular-education routes by two, but we’ve increased our special-education buses by six over the years,” Ulrich said, sitting in his office at the Chugiak bus barn one September afternoon. “The demand for special education programs has increased significantly.”

There are currently 29 regular routes and 17 special-education routes, according to Reliant Transportation. With new schools and new routes, the demand for drivers has also increased over the years, the assistant general manager said. A week after classes started in August, a sign advertising driving jobs fluttered from the bus yard fence. The same sign appeared near schools and bus lots around Anchorage.

About 50 drivers work out of the Chugiak shop, Ulrich said. For some, driving school buses is a career. Others are new to the job. To Stephanie Hennings, it was a welcome shift in gears.

“I used to work retail, and I just needed a change,” said Hennings, heading to her afternoon shift one day in late August.

An Anchorage resident, Hennings said she commutes to Chugiak to drive the bus. Her new job is all about the students, she said. Drivers wear orange safety vests, and framed fleet safety and maintenance awards line the walls of a back office.

“Safety’s a big deal here,” Hennings said. “It’s just like if you’re driving around when your kid is in your car, you’re definitely on high alert: I’m a mama bear for sure when it comes to all the kids in the bus.”

Many of the drivers have children of their own, Ulrich said. Some have grandchildren. Some have been driving local school buses for generations. The Chugiak bus barn is unique that way, he said.

“Our facility here is a little different because we have a lot of retirees who work for us,” Ulrich said. “It’s actually a really good retirement job.”

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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