Twice this year the National School Transportation Association filed complaints with the Federal Transit Administration against a public transit agency alleged to be operating an exclusive school bus service that violated federal law, and twice it successfully made its case.
The FTA sided with the school bus contractors association against Yankton Transit in Yankton, S.D., and the Bay Area Transit Authority in Suttons Bay, Mich., and ordered both to cease and desist those illegal operations. Transit agencies that receive federal funds are prohibited from competing with private school bus companies under 49 U.S.C. Section 5323(f) and 49 CFR Part 605. In addition, transit agencies that receive FTA funds are not permitted to provide schedules designed to serve only school-age students that are not open to the general public. The only exception to this rule is when a private school bus operation cannot provide adequate comparable service.
“The intent of this law to provide a level playing field between the federally subsidized and tax-exempt transit agencies and the private contractor who does not receive funding and pays taxes,” said NSTA Executive Director Ronna Weber. “NSTA will, at every instance where there is a clear violation, investigate whether filing suit is in the best interest of contractors in an effort to protect and preserve this law.”
In its February ruling, the FTA agreed with NSTA’s complaint filed on Feb. 24, 2011 alleging that Yankton Transit, a sub-recipient of the South Dakota Department of Transportation, was operating an exclusive, and thus illegal, service. The association submitted photo evidence showing a non-student rider being denied access to a bus parked in front of Sacred Heart School and another bus unloading students in front of St. Benedict’s Elementary School. NSTA also produced evidence that Yankton received more than $261,000 in federal transit funds while it operated this school-bus service.
The FTA ruled that NHTSA no longer distinguishes between Type I and Type II school vehicles, so Yankton’s argument on the types of buses utilized for school bus service is “irrelevant.” Further, FTA said Congress intended 49 CFR Part 605 to prevent transit agencies that receive federal funds to compete with private school-bus operators, which do not receive any federal funding. So, if the FTA determined the regulation only applied to operators using certain types of vehicle, it would “contravene Congressional intent.”
“The cease and desist order issued by the FTA were, in both the Yankton and Sutton’s Bay filings, issued following repeated school bus regulation violations by the transit agencies. These violations were made despite an agreement with FTA that, as a recipient of federal funds, they would not violate these regulations,” Weber continued.
Because of the timing of this ruling — halfway through the school year — the FTA gave Yankton Transit 60 days to provide a transition plan to FTA’s Region VIII office to enact at the start of next school year.
Then, in March, the FTA ordered the Bay Area Transportation Authority to discontinue its so-called “flex routes” in Suttons Bay, which has been used to transport students to school since Suttons Bay School District eliminated its busing service in 2010. BATA officials claimed the seven routes that the students use are also available for the public to use as well.
The FTA ruling to stop the flex routes came in response to a claim from NSTA stating that BATA violated federal regulations that limit the amount of service a mass transportation agency can provide to schools. Ultimately, BATA decided not to appeal the complaint filed by the FTA.
At the end of March, Suttons Bay schools and BATA began working on a plan that addresses the FTA’s concerns while still hoping to maintain their partnership, according to local reports.
The school district said that if they lose the bus services, they will have to shoulder a major financial burden, and district families would bear the burden as well — having no way to get students to school.
A “Transportation Update” is highlighted in red on the Suttons Bay Public Schools website, stating, “There are several options Suttons Bay Public Schools is pursuing at the moment. Rest assured, busing will be provided for the 2013-14 school year.”
Weber said she will be watching to make sure that any bus service provided is compliant with federal law, not only to protect the interests of its members but mainly to uphold the industry’s chief goal: keeping students safe every school day during transport.
“Yellow school bus transportation is the safest mode of transportation available. Any other service compromises the safety of any child transported,” she concluded. “Under federal and state standards, a school bus must include red flashing lights, crossing gates, stop arms, and the unique school-bus yellow color — all to warn motorists to be cautious and watch for children.”