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.

Like many inner-city students, Keren Osman's school bus isn't yellow. It's a public transit bus. Every morning, the 658 takes her from the poor flatlands of East Oakland up into the posh, eucalyptus-strewn hills where she attends Skyline High School.

"Most people think our school could be private, it's in such a nice location. And I've been going for two years and don't want to leave," says Keren.

She may not have a ride to school much longer, however, because of a bureaucratic fight brewing between Washington and major cities across the country.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is clamping down on transit bus routes such as the 658 that were created to shuttle schoolchildren. The FTA wants to be sure that federal dollars to city transit systems aren't subsidizing school busing, harming private bus companies' ability to compete.

The push for private competition could sock some of the country's struggling inner-city school systems with a huge new bill, say transit and school officials. Schools without private bus services say they would be "beside themselves trying to establish a bus service this late in the year," says Jim LaRusch, chief council for the American Public Transportation Association.

Oakland Unified School District estimates private busing costs would run into tens of millions of dollars. It already costs $8 million a year to privately transport the district's 1,500 special needs students – a sliver of the roughly 20,000 students that travel daily by public bus.

"It would mean tremendous and unwarranted expense that jeopardizes access to schools for people from underserved communities," says Troy Flint, Oakland schools spokesperson. It's not clear, he adds, if private contractors would provide the same "depth and range of services."

By piggybacking on an existing transit network, Oakland schools can offer a $15 monthly bus pass to students, giving them the flexibility to stay after school. For Keren, that means the chance to participate in volleyball and the Black Student Union.

"I don't think a private entity can do that, charging the school zero, and charging the kids $15 a month, and then providing them with not just school transit but all the other transit we do," says Chris Peeples, board president of AC Transit, which serves Oakland.

As a public entity, he adds, they have community support for special levies to help subsidize student passes. Federal monies for maintenance are also used for buses that primarily transport students – triggering FTA and industry concern.

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.

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.

No one knows for sure how many cities will now find themselves afoul of the FTA interpretation. But experts point to cities from Sioux City, Iowa, to Dayton, Ohio.

"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.

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