By Tina Comeau
Gary Hudson told a Utility and Review Board (URB) hearing in Yarmouth that he wears his heart on his sleeve and his interest in driving high school students to and from the downtown on their lunch hour in his Hut’s Transit’s vans is solely to help out the downtown businesses and the students.
At $2 a return trip, he said, it’s certainly not about the money.
He is only driven by good intentions.
At the conclusion of a two-hour Feb. 5 public hearing, the URB’s Dawna Ring, who chaired the hearing, said she wanted more time to digest the evidence and arguments she heard. She said she would render a decision in writing, but did not give a timeframe.
Hudson wants his motor carrier licence to allow him to make a stop at the Yarmouth high school on Forest Street to pick up and drop off students.
But the Tri-County Regional School Board is opposed to Hudson’s application for the sole reason that he would be transporting students in 15-passenger vans. The school board says because it is prohibited from using this type of van, it can’t support someone else transporting students in this type of vehicle during the school day, even if it is during the students’ lunch hour.
“Our case is around a vehicle that is prohibited for our board,” said school board superintendent Lisa Doucet. “We’re not here to question Mr. Hudson’s business, the way he runs his business, his reputation or any of those things, it’s around the safety and the van for us. And we’re certainly not here to cause any hardship on the community and the businesses.”
However, while the school board said it is prohibited from using 15-passenger vans itself, it couldn’t say during the hearing where that directive originates from. The school board said they assumed the directive came from the URB, but Ring said it hadn’t come from the URB and neither she, nor staff with the URB’s Motor Carrier division, could say where the directive originated from. All that was known is these vans cannot be used for school-sanctioned functions.
But Hudson says his business is not a school-based activity. Rather, it is a service he wants to provide through his business. And he thinks it is a safe option for students, who otherwise would be walking downtown or piling into vehicles to get there.
If the school board is so concerned over student safety, then what is it doing to prevent six or seven students from climbing into some cars during their lunch hour, Hudson asked Doucet.
“My question is what are you doing to stop it?” said Hudson.
Doucet said she wasn’t there to discuss those types of issues, although Ring said it was a fair comment.
“Right now we’re not doing anything to stop it,” Doucet said, although she added later in the hearing that vehicles that students drive to school are not prohibited vehicles to a school board, unlike the 15-passenger vans.
Hudson also asked what the board was doing to address students walking along Haley Road where there are no sidewalks and a very narrow shoulder to get to other businesses during their lunch hours, something he suggested isn’t safe.
“That hasn’t been brought to my attention as an issue,” said Doucet. “No one has asked me, no one has talked to me about what my plan is.”
“I’m asking you,” said Hudson.
“I don’t have a plan right now, right at this minute, sorry,” she said.
The hearing was open to anyone who wanted to make a presentation to the URB. Joe Habib, the owner of Jake’s Pizzeria, acknowledged that the school board raised some good points regarding safety as they spoke about the vans, but he spoke in support of Hudson’s application.
“I have a son that goes to high school and I’d rather see him get into a (van) than somebody else’s car,” Habib said. “There’s seatbelts, it’s insured and it’s a good guy running his business. That is number one for all of us, the safety of those children.
“He’s providing a very safe atmosphere,” said Habib, who described himself as “a parent who cares.”
But just as Habib wore his parent hat, he also wore his business owner hat. He said Yarmouth has been going through difficult times and he said moving the high school from Parade Street to Forest Street has had an impact on downtown businesses.
“He’s trying to make a better place to live in, trying to give people a chance, a hope . . . here is a man who is trying to better the area,” Habib said about Hudson.
Still, Steve Stoddart, the school board’s director of operations, said the board has to be concerned about the potential for student injury, should an accident occur when students are riding in these types of vans.
“This is about the van that is being proposed to use,” Stoddart said, saying what if someone comes along and runs into the van? He said if students were injured in an incident he wouldn’t want to be sitting across from the parents saying the students were in a vehicle that the school board is prohibited from using.
“Absolutely Mr. Stoddard, that’s a great point,” said Habib, but he added, “I’d rather them run into a van than a child on the road.”
There was some discussion during the hearing about an instance when Hut’s Transit was observed loading more than 14 students into a van to be driven downtown. A video that was taped on a security camera at the high school was shown during the hearing, although it was very difficult to see the students getting into the van given the distance of the van from the video camera. After watching it, and rewinding it to watch it again, it was concluded on this specific date that 16 students had gotten into the van.
Hudson said if his van was overloaded he took responsibility for that. But he also said when it was brought to his attention he ensured that it never happened again.
Hudson had been transporting students downtown at the start of the school year for about six weeks. But when he was told by an inspector with the Motor Carrier division of the URB that he couldn’t transport students between 12 and 1 p.m., because his licence doesn’t allow this, he stopped making the trips to the high school (which, Hudson noted, had been supported by the school principal at the time and vice-principal). Instead, he brought the application to the URB to allow it to have the final say.
Hudson added if the school board is concerned with being responsible for the liability should something happen, that concern is misplaced because it is Hudson’s business, not the school board, that would be responsible for that.
He said in the end he hopes the URB will side with him. He said his vans are equipped with seatbelts and fire extinguishers, they are regularly inspected and maintained, and in 17 years he’s never had an accident.
“I’ve never taken a vehicle on the road in the 17 years I’ve been in business that are unsafe,” he said, adding he only wants to help the community.
“It seems whenever somebody tries to do something good, someone comes along and steps on you.”