In Transit

In some communities across the U.S., public mass transit is a viable option for school transportation service. In both the yellow bus and public transit sectors it remains both a murky and controversial issue.

Riding public mass transit to school is nothing new. Just ask John Lombardi.

“I remember getting tokens to ride the bus to high school back in 1964,” said the transportation administrator for the School District of Philadelphia, which uses the local transit system to transport many of its high school students. Philadelphia is among a number of large urban centers — including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. — that for decades have utilized both bus and rail mass transit in school service.

The practice dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century when power and utility companies provided most of the bus and urban rail service throughout the United States. Following World War II, which saw the zenith of public transportation usage in 1946 with more than 23.4 billion rides, public transit went into a steep decline as GIs returning from the war moved to suburbia and bought homes and automobiles. By the early 1960s, ridership had fallen to about nine billion rides.

In an effort to save public transportation from total demise, the Johnson Administration pushed through the Urban Mass Transportation Act (UMTA) of 1964 as part of its Great Society initiative. With enactment of this far-reaching law, federal funding of public mass transit was embedded in the federal psyche.

In the face of the newly emergent federally subsidized competition, the private school bus contracting industry (about 4,000 companies at the time) sought a barrier to prevent the subsidized companies from encroaching into their business. In 1973, Congress enacted the St. Germain Amendment to the basic UMTA law, and it laid the foundation for modern, school bus contracted service by defining the permissible service that subsidized public transit systems would be allowed to perform. Federally-funded public transit could provide “regularly scheduled mass transportation service” but not in direct competition with private school bus companies. The so-called tripper regulation (49 CFR 605.11) was intended to prevent federal grantees from competing against private school bus operators (with this caveat) — when private contractors are available to provide the service.

“You see,” said Robin Leeds, industry specialist for the National School Transportation Association, “the original UMTA law is about the unfair use of taxpayer money to compete with private enterprise, and to ensure that federal transit dollars go for the purpose for which the money is intended. (School bus service) was understood to be a state function under the Constitutional reservation of powers to the states or people (Article 10), and was never intended to receive federal transit dollars. When a transit authority uses federal money to provide school service, that takes money away from the intended use of those federal funds, which is public transportation.”

However, the tripper regulation establishes several conditions by which public mass transit may legally provide school transportation service. According to the 2006 OMB Circular A133 that gauges compliance: (a) tripper service must be open to the public; (b) buses used in tripper service must clearly be marked as open to the public and may not carry designations such as ‘school bus’ or ‘school special’; (c) tripper buses may stop only at regular bus stops. (d) all routes traveled by tripper buses must be within the regular service area as indicated in published schedules, and (e) schedules listing tripper routes should be on the grantee’s regular published schedules or on separately published schedules that are available to the public.

Moreover, as part of the annual certifications and assurances required by the FTA, transit grantees must enter into an agreement with the FTA Administrator stating that the grantee will not engage in school bus operations exclusively for the transportation of students and school personnel in competition with private school bus operators, unless it demonstrates to the FTA Administrator any one of the exceptions listed in 49 CFR section 605.11 and the Administrator concurs.

Still, for many the issue remains foggy.

An NPRM was launched in 1999 to clear the air and update the regulation. The FTA withdrew the NPRM five years later citing public transit disdain for the proposed modifications. Instead, in 2005, working with the National School Transportation Association, the FTA published a brochure and “Dear Colleague” letter reiterating the intent of the original tripper regulation. Clearly, the permissible use of public transportation for school bus service is to remain.

Importantly, 49 CFR 605.11 is silent with regard to the student safety practices that define modern school bus service. The regulation is also silent with regard to public transit providing service to public or private school districts’ absent competition from private school bus contractors who might otherwise be available to provide the service.
Ironically, although the NPRM was withdrawn, comment to the docket made by the the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) urged that “child-related safety features” not be disallowed, and that grantees should be allowed to “customize their vehicles to provide enhanced safety for their young riders.”

Fully compliant and legal tripper service remains a murky arena, an elusive target that is subject to shifting modifications and accommodations.

Violations Continue
Yet, as recent highly-publicized cases show — namely the federal court decision involving the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority in upstate New York, an ongoing case in Dayton, Ohio, a newly filed complaint in Sioux City, Iowa, and a decade-old case in Flint, Mich. — alleged and proven violations of the tripper regulations by transit agencies continue. Some estimates range in the hundreds nationwide.

“There have been issues in the past with some cities doing illegal service,” explains Bill Tousley, president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. “Most programs use student bus passes on existing routes or they make the school routes public routes to stay within the law.”

The entire issue remains a bone of contention for school bus contractors and unions following a U.S. district court ruling that the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority in upstate New York can expand its service for the local high school district. This ruling is not considered precedent and is limited to the western district of New York.

Nevertheless, “NSTA has made a strategic decision to continue to lean on transit agencies that are in violation of the tripper regulation,” added Leeds of the NSTA.
The subject is set firmly in the cross hairs of state school bus contractor associations, too.

“We’re not in favor of it,” said Lenny Ciufo, the president of the Maryland School Bus Contractor’s Association. “From a safety standpoint, the school bus is a safer vehicle. Baltimore has also had a problem with violence (on transit buses), and that’s not a good thing for students, either.”

Which is not to suggest that all transit agencies ignore the potential for student violence, especially gang violence.

For example, 17,000 Boston Public School students utilize bus or rail transit to get to school. There, under the StopWatch program, school police coordinate with the Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority police to stem student violence; moreover, the school district schedules the tiered release of students from school to mitigate large gatherings of students at public transit stops.
Then there’s the issue of middle school students riding public transit; in Boston alone, 2,000 middle school students ride the “T” to and from school. Understandably, parents and educators alike are concerned about unsavory characters and sexual predators riding with school-age children. Public safety is important in the public transit industry, but typically not with the same level of child-centered oversight as school bus drivers and school systems are trained to provide.

An Option When Done Right
Still, public transit can be a viable alternative for secondary students to ride existing transit routes. Transit service can offer flexibility for students to attend after-school activities or mid-day extracurricular classes at different schools.

APTA reports that students account for about 15 percent of its ridership, equal to about 1.5 billion rides annually. APTA considers a student to be as old as 22. The transit association also reports that about 11 percent of all transit riders are 18 years and younger, though data indicating the day and time of those rides are not kept. FTA grantees report ridership through the Section 15 fare box accounting system that tracks every single ride.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) is an example of legal tripper service that serves as an adjunct to the yellow school bus with an extensive transportation system including buses, streetcars, subways and rail trains. School service in Philadelphia has been underway for decades. Last year, the state enacted a law requiring the school district to provide public transportation to students who live a mile and a half from school.

“The school district now issues weekly Transpasses covering all charter, non-public and parochial schools,” explains Lombardi. At a cost of $15.65 per week per student for the 180-day school year, the pass allows students to ride any vehicle between the hours of 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. The cost for charter, private and parochial students can be more because those students have a longer school year.

To alleviate overcrowding on certain lines, the transit authority has arranged tripper vehicles to show up outside certain schools and follow the existing public route, explains Dan Casey, general manager, SEPTA. “These trippers are geared to school departure and arrival times and have the added benefit of not mixing adults with children.”

Buffalo Public Schools provides secondary students with a bus pass to ride public transportation based on the state standard mileage eligibility of a mile and half.
“There are a number of distinct advantages,” says John Fahey, assistant superintendent, Buffalo Public Schools. “If a student misses the bus at 7:30 [a.m.], they can catch the next bus at 7:45.”

At $550 per student for the school year, the savings is almost half the yellow bus cost of roughly $1,200 per child. In Buffalo, the district designates the route the student can use. By feeding all addresses into a computer program, they can identify the most direct route home for a child.

“This keeps any problems to a minimum so kids can’t get together and congregate or hang out downtown. It makes it easy for operators to know that a child is in the spot he needs to be and not out for a joy ride.”

In addition, students have a limited time to use the pass of 90 minutes from dismissal, although custom passes are available for extracurricular activities or internships. The district conducts an orientation for all ninth graders so they understand the program.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) monitors ridership statistics daily and continually tweaks its service.

“We can see how many people ride a particular bus, at what time of day, where the high ridership falls in the route and so on,” explains James Morrell, superintendent of route planning, NFTA. “From a planning perspective, we may determine we have to put another bus on the line to accommodate or otherwise change service.”

Occasionally, there are minor discipline problems with the students such as noise or boisterous activity, but the school districts work closely with the local transit agency to supervise.

“Students know we have a no-nonsense policy and that they are subject to arrest if they do something very bad while riding,” explains Fahey. “The district has been known to hold a student’s pass for a week or the Transit Authority will hold an assembly at certain schools if necessary.”

Rapport with Local Transit
Pauline Gervais, executive director, Denver Public Schools, stresses that having good rapport with the local transit authority is critical.

“We have to remember that regional transit is in business to make money and is regulated very stringently by federal regulations,” she said. “They can’t be packing buses on the road for a particular route for school transportation.”

In fact, due to being federally subsidized, it is illegal for public transit authorities to run school bus specific routes that are not available to the general public in order to avoid competition with private transportation companies.

Jessie Carter, senior service planner of the Denver Regional Transportation District, says that, overall, the switch to students riding public transit has been positive.

“The discontinuance of yellow bus service has put some pressure on us to make sure we have trips at the right time. For example, school principals can choose their own bell times which can be hard for us because we still have to deal with peak demand time from all different customers.”

“Customers don’t always like to see large groups of students boarding the bus,” he adds. “There have been some minor behavior issues with students who feel once they are on public transit they can act up or students from two rival schools riding same route. But overall we are excited and energized by the growth in ridership.”

When asked if the program has provided additional revenue, Carter replies that, “Like any public transit agency, we don’t operate in the positive revenue realm. Our goal is to bleed less. With more passengers per route, we had to add in more buses and more operators to accommodate them. But from an overall revenue standpoint we’re not looking any worse than before the change.”

Gervais points out a positive for the transit authority is that, as adults, these students have a greater possibility of using public transportation, known as travel training, since they have been exposed to it.

“One of the hopes is that students will continue to use it and become future riders,” she says.

Blodgett is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Reprinted from the April 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.