Clampdown on public buses could jeopardize school ride
According to federal officials, districts like Oakland, Calif., harm private bus firms by using city transit buses.
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A private company can't match a federally subsidized transit agency when the agency is "essentially using taxpayer dollars that are intended for transportation of the general public," says Robin Leeds, spokesperson for the National School Transportation Association. The group represents private bus companies and supports the FTA clampdown.Skip to next paragraph
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Private operators would be interested in serving inner-city routes if they can do so on a level playing field, says Ms. Leeds. They have at least one selling point: the yellow buses have more child-safety features than city buses.
The FTA was motivated to clarify its interpretation of the federal statutes after a court decision this year in Rochester, N. Y. A US district court found that Rochester could create bus routes for students, as long as members of the public could hypothetically board the buses, too.
FTA attorneys dispute that reading. The rules allow for subsidized fares and additional buses to handle students on established lines, they say, but not for creating special routes exclusively for students – like the 658 – without regard for any other demand.
"It is clear that it will have devastating effects," reads a statement from the American Public Transportation Association. "Many schools report this proposal would result in a complete disruption of service, and in at least one case, entire state systems would suffer."
The FTA notes that transit agencies can apply for an exemption if they can show private operators are "unable to provide adequate transportation, at a reasonable rate." But it's unclear if exemptions would be given when private service costs significantly more. Rochester, for example, estimated that switching to private buses would cost another $8 million to $10 million a year. If exemptions aren't granted in such scenarios, schools may have to decide whether to cut programs or busing. California and some other states don't mandate that schools provide transportation.
"Talk about No Child Left Behind. I'd say half the school would be left down the hill," says Michele LeProhn, president of Skyline's parent-teacher association. It's a 40-minute uphill slog from the nearest regular service stop.
Keren can go to a school closer by, one she went to before transferring to the much-sought-after Skyline. The FTA ruling complicates the ability of "flatlanders" – who tend to be minorities – to go to schools like Skyline, says Mr. Flint.