At first, it probably drew a few scoffs: the suggestion by Tuolumne County Supervisor Paolo Maffei that the county's public transportation system be combined with public school bus services.

At its extreme, the notion conjures images of low-income and senior residents battling with lots of antsy tots and mischievous teens for bus seat space and harried drivers contending with screwball routes.

But further consideration of the possibilities and savings such a plan could hold suggests that county transportation leaders and school bus chiefs need to give Maffei's idea some serious study.

Prompting Maffei to think outside the bus systems as we know them are statistics showing how little both public transit and school buses are used. Only about 24 percent of the transit system costs are currently covered by passenger ticket sales. And in most of Tuolumne County's 12 individual school districts, the number of students riding to and from school each day is declining.

The lack of use of the two bus systems is understandable, frankly.

More and more parents now drive their kids to school because of how early they have to have their kids at a bus stop and how long the bus rides often take. Sadly, in this day and age, leaving kids to wait unattended at a bus stop is also a valid concern most parents have.

As for the county bus schedule, it doesn't allow for anything remotely close to a quick trip to the store and back.

"Who's going to ride the bus when it's such an infrequent service?" Maffei asked of the public transit system the county offers but can't afford to expand so that it attracts more riders.

But while ridership numbers on school and county buses dip, the costs to provide the transportation the price of gas being just one expense only go up.

Timing also makes Maffei's dual-purpose bus system idea all the more intriguing: Most of the county's public schools are currently suffering significant enrollment declines. And since state income to each school district is based on the number of students attending, this means those same districts are in serious financial trouble.

So administrators and trustees within each district are forced to consider such budget-slashing measures as staff layoffs, program cuts and, in one case, all but vacating one relatively new campus.

Innovative ideas, like Maffei's, are essential at times when public funds are so limited.

No doubt, Maffei's proposal is rough and raises many questions.

His suggestion that the buses could carry both school students and adult riders at once to their assorted destinations may be unrealistic. Many parents won't want their youngsters on the same bus as adult strangers. On the flip side, how many adults would want to ride along with rambunctious kids?

And what about all the field trips and sports teams headed to out-of-county games? How would a county-school bus system accommodate them?

But do 12 school districts each need individual bus systems? Could the combining of school and public transits make more efficient use of every bus, driver and bus mechanic? Could wise scheduling of bus rounds and bus stop locations mean less downtime between routes? Would combined systems mean some of the many buses now in service around the county could be sold?

And what sort of new joint powers agency would need to be formed to oversee a bus system serving multiple needs? Who would run it? Who would look for funding sources and market the program to make it popular to young and old riders?

Maffei so far has only pitched the idea to the Tuolumne County Board of Education. Some members agreed it's at least worth further study. We hope other county and school leaders will also go at least that far.

Frankly, they can't afford not to.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.