In response to the start of construction on the city’s new Public Services facility on Saco Street, which houses the school department’s bus fleet and maintenance garage, all 25 of the district’s buses will be moved to Westbrook Middle School for the upcoming school year.

City and school administrators are hoping to minimize the impact the move could have on traffic along Stroudwater Street, an already busy route for motorists that will be complicated by nearby construction.

Work on the city’s $8.7 million public services and fleet maintenance facility is expected to start in late September, and will immediately impact the current bus facilities, prompting officials to find a temporary solution. The buses are slated to move to the middle school about two weeks after the opening of the 2015-16 school year.

Wednesday, Sept. 2, is the first day of school in Westbrook for grades 1-9, and Thursday, Sept. 3, is the first day for grades 10-12. After a four-day break, school resumes Tuesday, Sept. 8, which is also the first day for kindergarten students.

Also coinciding with the move is construction that is already under way at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, directly next door to the middle school.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said Thursday that city and school officials decided the middle school was the “most viable” site for the move, given its access and space for parking, but will start the transition by utilizing police help in directing traffic to and from the middle school entrance. The morning commute is seen as the top priority.

“The move will allow construction to go faster, and make the inconvenience shorter,” Bryant said, about the Public Services project.

According to Bryant, the buses will be housed in the back portion of the school’s parking lot, and the transportation team will use an existing utility building as its headquarters.

Joan Harmon, the school department’s bus coordinator, said she’s not worried about the move.

“I don’t see it as an issue,” she said. “It is nice to have our own space, but right now, we’re the traveling buses.”

The buses will still be fueled and receive maintenance on Saco Street.

The new Public Services facility is expected to be finished in time for the 2016-17 school year, and, Harmon said, the department is planning to be in the new space by the end of next summer.

The updated facility will consolidate municipal and school building maintenance, wastewater division maintenance and public safety vehicle maintenance, which have separate buildings at Cumberland Mills and Mechanic Street.

New facility components will include a 22,050-square-foot fleet maintenance and administration building, a 14,000-square-foot sand and salt storage building, and a 1,900-square-foot school bus administration office.

Bryant said bids on the construction will be opened soon, with work to start next month.

In the meantime, Harmon and Ed Patterson, the department’s maintenance coordinator, have been smoothing over logistics of moving to the middle school.

Harmon said her staff – the drivers – will park in the lot in front of the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. The only parking squeeze predicted is when the Performing Arts Center hosts events that will attract large crowds.

“On those evenings that they’ll need additional parking, we’ll move the buses to some of the other schools for parking overnight,” she said.

“It’s going to be tight sometimes,” Bryant said about the effect from Performing Arts Center parking. “That is an operating site, as well.”

The school department and the Animal Refuge League have a reciprocal agreement to help ease traffic concerns.

This includes the expanding of an access road that runs between both properties, which will provide access for both shelter employees and buses returning to the school. The shelter will expand the road as part of its construction project, and in return, the school will allow the shelter to use its sewer connection.

Last week, Superintendent of Schools Marc Gousse said he wanted to emphasize to parents that the move is only temporary.

“We’re still 100 percent committed to the Public Services project,” he said.

Bryant said buses will travel out of the middle school’s main parking lot, but will return using the Performing Arts Center parking lot, continuing around the back of the school.

Harmon said she doesn’t expect the new location to impact bus route schedules.

“We’re not expecting too much difference in our times, but it may mean the drivers will be adjusting their time to get to their first stop on time,” she said.

The department must also upgrade the utility building outside the middle school in order to house Harmon and other employees throughout the day, and will be running power from the building to each bus. During winter nights, each bus is typically plugged in to a power source to charge its heater.

“I’m sure once we’re down there, we’ll find a way to make it run smoothly,” she said. “And, we’re looking forward to that new building.”

Westbrook school buses are parked in a line outside the Public Services facility on Saco Street last week. The entire fleet will be moved at the start of the school year to make way for construction. Staff photo by Andrew Rice

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