|FTA’s Final Policy Statement on Tripper Service Only First Act in Ongoing Play|
|Written by Staff|
|Saturday, 01 November 2008 00:00|
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Federal Transit Administration may have more clearly defined the terms “tripper service” and “exclusive” school bus operations in its recently released final policy statement, but the parties involved are far from coming to any type of immediate closure on the issue.
“They’ll follow the policy statement with a notice of proposed rule making, and we’ll duke it out in comments with that,” said NSTA lobbyist Becky Weber. “It will be an attempt to clarify what transit can do that is legal and what it can not do. And if we don’t get satisfaction in that form of the regulatory process, then I imagine this will end up being fought in the Congress in the (transportation) reauthorization bill.”
But, like many hot button issues in this industry, there are numerous sides, opinions and realities for private school contractors, public transit agencies and school districts. Among the more than 500 comments submitted to the federal register before the final policy statement were 141 submitted by residents of the Oakland, Calif., area, which included Oakland Unified School District (OCSD) and AC Transit, a public transit agency that provides 60,000 school trips daily to OCSD and 12 other surrounding school districts.
“There’s an assumption that the school districts entered into a contract with us and are paying us for this service, and they’re not,” said AC Transit President H. E. Christian Peeples. “Our money comes from the both the state and federal level.”
Peeples based his argument on a portion of his company’s letter that FTA never specifically responded to in the final policy statement: assuring that the private providers actually provide any service in the end. When AC Transit had to offer up a charter service to private companies it had been running to the local race track, a company in Pismo Beach — 350 miles south — said it wanted the contract. But, in the end, the Pismo-based company never provided any service after three months of phone calls from race track representatives. AC Transit was also unable to renew service because it had already cuts the runs going to the track.
“If that happened to the 60,000 school trips we provide every day it would be pretty drastic. The school district estimated that replacing our service would cost them tens of millions of dollars and they don’t have it,” added Peeples.
The final policy statement, in Peeples’ opinion, appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to the Rochester decision — something, he said, FTA released as quickly as possible in fear that the next administration would not support it.
“The court in Rochester got it exactly right that this has been the way its been for 40 years, and all of a sudden they’re deciding that they’re going to change it,” said Peeples.
Private school bus contractors of course object. Jim Shafer, general manager for School Bus Inc., in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he continues to struggle with the idea that people don’t understand the issue. To explain the concept, he offered a non-school bus example.
“Let’s suppose that the federal government will pay 75 percent of your annual salary to your company so it can fire you and hire them instead. Look at how much money they saved. Is that fair to you? No. It’s the same thing with the private contractor’s side. How can we compete with vehicles that are paid for by the government?” added Schafer.
Some contractors are also pointing out the actual breakdown of costs to taxpayers when transit agencies offer school bus service. At first glance, the idea of switching to public transit seems very cost-effective. For example, at Oakland Unified and the surrounding districts, the students pay $15/month for transit bus passes (monthly passes normally cost $70/month), which would only cost the districts a combined $5.4 million annually if they footed the bill. But, the costs are made up in ways the public may not realize.
“It looks cheap to the parents and the school district, but our tax dollars are picking up the rest of it,” said Dawnita Forell, owner of Forell Bus, located in central South Dakota. “That’s what’s sad about it; it looks like they’re out there doing this great thing and, really, its costing us more money than it would be to privately contract it.”
Where is the Middle Ground?
“We’re not saying that every school bus route out there now operated by transit is illegal,” said NSTA’s Weber. “APTA created a hysteria that made people think, ‘Oh my gosh, I won’t have a way to get kids to school.’ If they’re picking up the kids in their neighborhoods, then taking them to school and there’s only students on the bus, then that’s a red flag for us.”
When those red flags pop up, Weber and NSTA industry specialist Robin Leeds begin the process by contacting the FTA, which it first did in July 2007 after learning of possible tripper violations in Dayton, Ohio. After almost a year of communications via U.S. mail between NSTA, FTA and the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority, the parties met this past June to discuss options that would keep the transit agency violation-free, the Dayton Public School students moving and the local school bus contractors happy.
“In the end, the Dayton transit agency said it did not have the funding to provide school service this year and because of this change, the NSTA did not pursue its complaint against them with the FTA,” said Leeds. “The school district set up a task force to look for options for transportation next year. Kids are getting to school any way they can.”
Sometimes there is no need for a face-to-face meeting, as some districts have taken it upon themselves to research the issue.
“We asked for an interpretation a year ago to figure out how it works, because there was some concern about that and we’ve been working on it since,” said Doug Batcheller, president of the Sioux City, Iowa, Community Schools board of education, adding that hiring a private contractor was an option that was investigated at the same time. “When the board was faced with a decision of unloading its fleet and the concept that if we were not happy with the service that we were receiving (from a private contractor) that we’d have to come back and repurchase the fleet — that’s what swayed the board more than anything else.”
|Last Updated on Thursday, 10 December 2009 08:18|