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Proposed Federal Transit Rules Upset Districts

By Christina A. Samuels — July 15, 2008 3 min read

The Federal Transit Administration wants public transit agencies to get out of the business of creating routes designed exclusively to take students to and from school.

But a proposed policy statement, which the agency says only clarifies rules that have been in effect for more than 30 years, has raised alarm among district officials. For some districts, those officials say, public transit is the most effective way to get students to school.

Paul Griffo, a spokesman for the federal agency, said that a final proposal would be released soon, but that any changes the FTA makes would not be expected to affect school transportation for the 2008-09 school year. The changes are meant to ensure that transit agencies that receive federal money are only using the funds for general transit service, Mr. Griffo said in an e-mail message last week.

Some organizations are predicting dire consequences, however, if the FTA proposal is adopted.

“One transit agency reports the change would affect some 40 percent of its routes, another reports over 80 percent of its supplemental-service trips would be impacted, many schools report this proposal would result in a complete disruption of service, and in at least one case, an entire state system would suffer,” said a letter in opposition to the proposal jointly submitted by the American Public Transportation Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of the Great City Schools, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Rochester, N.Y., Case

Private bus companies, though, are supportive.

In a letter to the FTA, the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association said: “We have seen school districts in the state who advertise local transit authorities as a contact for transportation on their district Web site, circumventing the local school bus operator entirely from the process. We have seen districts that call the local transit authority to bid on specialized school bus transportation.

“We would hope that the FTA can better define the school bus operations because it seems that transit and school districts do not understand what violates the laws,” the letter continued. “Either that, or they are blatantly disregarding the law.”

The proposed policy, published in the May 19 issue of the Federal Register, arose from a 2008 district court ruling in New York state, and says that public transit agencies would be generally prohibited from creating service “that a reasonable person would conclude primarily was designed to accommodate students and school personnel, and only incidentally to serve the nonstudent general public.”

In January, U.S. District Judge David G. Larimer of Rochester determined that the FTA could not stop a transit agency from modifying its bus routes to serve the 34,000-student Rochester, N.Y., district. About 9,000 middle and high school students ride regular transit buses for free, a service that has been available for 12 years. Transportation for elementary school students is provided by a private contractor that operates familiar yellow school buses.

The FTA gets involved in such issues because in 1973, Congress said that public transit agencies could get federal funding only if they agreed “not to provide school bus transportation that exclusively transports students and school personnel in competition with a private school bus operator.” In the years since that bill passed, the FTA has allowed public agencies to make what it calls “minor modifications” to transit routes to accommodate students.

But what the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority planned to do was a major modification, argued the union that represents private drivers of school buses.

The transit authority planned to change some routes so that instead of students’ having to go into downtown Rochester to transfer to another bus, they could get on one express bus, avoid the downtown transfer point, and loop around the city to their final destination.

The FTA agreed with the union’s arguments, and tried to stop the transportation authority from making the route changes. But Judge Larimer said the FTA was applying arbitrary standards in evaluating the regional transit authority’s plans. The bus routes are open to the public, and the transit authority should be allowed to design routes with student needs in mind, he wrote in his opinion.

“The regulations clearly allow you to design or modify existing routes to accommodate students,” said Mark R. Aesch, the chief operating officer of the Rochester-Genesee transportation authority. “I think there’s a significant flaw as to the way the FTA is thinking of this.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Proposed Federal Transit Rules Upset Districts

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