Late Thursday Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s office told me she was preparing to borrow $2 million to replace 40 of the 90 aged (some more than ten years old) state-owned buses serving Connecticut’s vocational-technical school students.
Rell’s announcement just happened to come as myself and reporters at the Hartford Courant were preparing separate stories for Friday on the vo-tech fleet’s abnormally high safety inspection failure rates in 2008 and 2009.
Today the Governor issued a formal press statement on the $2 million, but added another piece of news – the 40 new buses must be equipped with safety belts.
“With this updated fleet, we have a tremendous opportunity to, perhaps save a life and prevent another family from suffering the devastating loss of a loved one,” Rell said, referring to the Jan. 9 death of Vikas Parikh of Rocky Hill when the school bus he was riding tumbled down an embankment on I-84.
“This young man’s family strongly believes he would be with them today had he been wearing a seat belt, and I cannot disagree,” Rell said.
Here’s where things get confusing.
Rell’s decision regarding the vo-tech buses comes as the General Assembly, as a result of Parikh’s death, considers passing a law making belts mandatory on ALL school buses, not just those state owned vehicles serving the vo-tech system.
Rell even refers to this effort – which is not without controversy – in today’s press release. Critics argue the costs to school districts/private bus companies to retrofit vehicles – $200 million to $500 million – are prohibitive; the belts might not be practical; and the accident that claimed Parikh’s life is a rare occurance.
So is Rell’s demanding belts on vo-tech buses a signal she is throwing her support behind the mandatory belt legislation? And, regardless, isn’t she handing ammunition to the pro-belts-on-buses crowd? If you’re a parent of a non-vo-tech student don’t you hear today’s announcement from the Governor and think “why should my kid be any less safe riding to and from school than the vo-tech kids?!?!”
I know I’d be calling the Governor and my state legislator.
So I e-mailed Rell spokesman Donna Tommelleo and asked if Rell supports the seat belt legislation and if today’s announcement sets a precedent. Here’s the response Tommelleo sent back:
“The Governor supports seat belts on these new buses. She has long believed that any new buses purchased for use in Connecticut come equipped with seat belts. As for setting a precedent, the state will issue the RFP (Request For Proposals) for vo-tech buses with seats belts and if, in fact, that is a precedent, it is certainly one worth setting.”