Feds Still Forcing Transit Agencies to Bow to Private Charter Buses

Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported yesterday
that the U.S. DOT would end a Bush-era mandate to reward new transit
projects for using private contractors — but a similar
pro-privatization rule for bus service remains in effect, preventing
local transit agencies from competing with private charter companies.

1fairbus0903.jpgFairgoers
in Minnesota depart a private charter bus that benefited from federal
rules barring competition with public transit agencies. (Photo: Star-Trib)

The rule, finalized last year, has forced Washington D.C.’s Metrobus to stop providing free buses to Redskins football games and blocked Indianapolis’ transit agency from offering lower-cost service to the town’s famed Indy 500 car race.

This
year, it’s Minnesota State Fair attendees who are contending with
privatized bus service that left them waiting for hours and caused
"ugly scenes," as the local Star-Tribune reports today.

The rule was intended to shield "private charter operators from unfair competition by
federally subsidized public transit agencies," as the Bush administration wrote in its initial regulatory justification. 

As
a result, public transit agencies were barred from offering bus
services to special events if a private company was able to do the job
instead. The rule prompted outcries from the American Public Transportation Association, but it has yet to be overturned by the Obama administration.

In
a June letter to senior members of the House transportation committee,
19 lawmakers — three of them Republican — asked for the rule to be
reversed in the next long-term federal infrastructure bill. From the
letter, spearheaded by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and David Dreier (R-CA):

By
making public transit agencies ineligible to provide what has always
been considered public transit service, this ill-advised [Federal
Transit Administration] rulemaking contradicts federal goals to
encourage public transportation to alleviate traffic congestion and
improve air quality nationwide.

Charter bus service is reserved and exclusive service to
events, many of which are traditionally open only to a select group.
Service open to any member of the public to board and ride, without
advance reservation, to a public event has always been considered
public service and that definition should be restored.

That long-term infrastructure bill is likely to be delayed for at least a year at the request
of the White House, however. The question is whether the FTA is willing
to undo the pro-privatization rule on its own before the bill is taken
up.

(thanks to commenter Brad on the Transport Politic for the link)

  • Erik G.

    Seems to me there is an ADA lawsuit against USDOT in here somewhere. Few if any of the contractors can reliably provide ADA-compliant vehicles and ADA-trained operators.

    (Not that LA Metro hasn’t had some issues with this, h/t to KABC-TV)

    And the policy has killed at least two people already:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/13/AR2008071301799.html

  • That is an awfully narrow prism to view this issue through. This isn’t a simple matter of Bush extreme views being pushed but instead the latest chapter in a longstanding conflict.

    Greviances by the charter bus industry against competition by transit agencies stretches back decades. A few years ago a work group of all the stakeholders was formed by the FTA in a fresh effort to try and find common ground. I have been vague whether the process resulted in consensus or that eventually the bureaucrats cobbled together rules they hoped would work based on what the different sides had said. And in the end pissed off eveybody and satisfied nobody.

    In my view the conflict is basically unsolvable. Politicians love to be able to take credit for cheap or free bus service for local groups going on trips, services for special events, etc. and pressure transit agencies to provide it. This can really get sticky when the requester sits on the agency board and therefore votes on the budget etc. Agencies want to stay on their good side and feel pressured into acceding to the request.

    The charter people see it as unfair for services to be provided with buses that were purchased with taxpayer funds even if the service is provided at marginal cost (i.e. the transit folks charge for the cost of fuel, etc.). They feel this is an uneven playing field that steals trips they should be providing.

    And meanwhile (although they don’t like to say this out loud) the transit people really don’t want to do these kind of trips. It doesn’t fit their usual business model, often requires paying overtime etc. But they feel pressure from the politicos and various folks going to events etc. to go along with this.

    I’m sure the Congress about now is getting pushback from the charter folks to not withdraw the rule. As this situation is basically a gordian knot I wouldn’t hold my breathe on it being resolved any time soon to the satisfaction of the various parties concerned.

    It should be noted some have avoided these issues simply by not using federal funds to purchase buses used for excusions. That is the case with the Big Blue Bus and its monthly trips

    http://bigbluebus.com/home/MonthlyExcursion.asp

    Many local cities have special excursion buses that they use for special trips through their local senior center or rec & parks dept. I have seen a double decker bus that the city of Santa Fe Springs owns down at the Music Center. Some cities also actually hire charter companies to handle such trips. It can be done. Maybe a study is needed with perspectives on what sort of strategies could address all the conflicting demands and concerns.

  • cph

    Currently, certain types of special events are exempted from the FTA charter service rules. These are generally “events of national importance” such as the Olympics, presidential funerals, etc. Also exempted are emergencies such as disaster evacuations and such.

    Should the exemptions be broadened to allow for events such as:
    1. Hollywood Bowl concert season?
    2. “Special” games such as the Rose Bowl or playoff games at Staples, Dodger Stadium, etc.
    3. Ordinary sporting events at these places
    4. County Fairs
    5. Anything else I didn’t think of

    The charter bus companies have a point when federally-funded transit agencies compete with them for ordinary business (e.g. an individual, club, church, etc. wants to charter a bus for a social trip somewhere). But serving public sporting events, concerts, fairs and other similar public venues within the service area of the transit agency really should be seen as part of the mission of the transit agency to provide transit service to its customers.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Rebutting the “Empty Bus” Argument Against Transit

|
From Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit comes some very useful ammunition in the battle of reasonable people against knee-jerk transit-bashers. Walker begins his post by quoting from a story in Canada’s National Post headlined "Save the Environment: Don’t Take Transit." The article posits that because many buses run empty for much of the day, […]

Transit Outsourcing Booms — But Are There Safety Trade-offs?

|
New Orleans streetcars, such as the one pictured above, are about to be outsourced to a private French company. (Photo: NYT) The Wall Street Journal reports today on the growing number of cities around the country that are in talks to outsource local transit systems to cope with the budgetary pressures of the recession. New […]

Obama Stimulus Leaves Bus Riders By the Side of The Road

|
Who rides the bus? Data source: American Public Transportation Association The House version of President Obama’s stimulus plan has left bus riders with nothing to look forward to but stiff fare hikes and painful service cuts. Bus systems got zero in immediate operating support from the bill that passed yesterday — stunning neglect compared to […]