Garfield High School, the edifice that educated Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones
Garfield High School in Seattle, photo by flickr user Rutlo

This is old news, but the ridiculous Bush-era holdover rule that prohibits public transit agencies from competing with private coach operators for sporting events also applies to public school buses. Many school districts that have high schools well served by transit have stopped using dedicated school buses and instead give bus passes to students. This FTA ruling, which already has resulted in the cancelation of shuttle service to Mariner’s games, will now cost public schools across the state millions, not to mention the costs across the nation, and comes at a time when tax receipts have fallen so precipitously that public schools all over are laying off teachers, shuttering programmes and raising fees for extra curricular activities.

This rule is terrible and has to go. Come on LaHood!

H/T to Oran.

19 Replies to “Stupid No-Compete Fed Rule Hurts Schools”

  1. That really bites. My high school gave us all free Community Transit monthly bus passes to use the ample transit in and around Edmonds. It was great becuase we could use it any weekday at any time.

    Pullman school district uses Pullman Transit buses during off-peak WSU times to transport middle and high school students as dedicated school bus. The PT buses have special MS and HS “Trippers” routes for the students. I wonder how that’ll be effected. Random fact for west side transiteers, Pullman Transit has over a million riders annually and has one of the highest passengers per mile ratio of any transit system in the country. Go moving 10,000 students about a mile daily!

  2. Well, a 1973 law would be a Nixon era holdover. The Bush administration and now the Obama administration is just upholding the law. It’s up to congress to make/change the law. In Seattle Laidlaw is a private company that provides school bus service, right? I don’t think there are any private school bus companies on the eastside (eastside of the lake or eastside of the mountains).

    The 889 goes by my house. It’s sole purpose is to transport kids to Sammamish HS. I figure the district decided to contract Metro which can use the smaller vans than running it’s own full size buses since so many HS kids drive themselves to school or get rides. Northshore SD sometimes uses special Metro excursion service for the HS; sometimes they use their own buses and drivers. Kids have to pay bus fare when they use Metro, it’s free when they use the NS buses so I guess it depends on how much is in the budget for the activity. MI wouldn’t have to buy more buses. You just stagger the school schedules so that the drivers pick-up HS first (just after 6AM in parts of Woodinville).

    1. Laidlaw is First Student now, after Laidlaw(including their Greyhound Intercity Bus line) was bought out by First Group. Seattle uses several contractors, and a few Metro routes, in addition to regular routes that pass by the schools, and Franklin will have LINK Light Rail running by it when school resumes in the fall. What are they going to tell the students who take public transit, that a private company wanted more business so you have to take the Yellow Bus?

      To Congressemmbers Reichert and McMorriss, if this is repealed with the reauthorization of SAFETEA-LU, don’t fight it, even if your party says you have to. Fight for your constituents for a change, all of them.

  3. I wonder if this affects the 15 and 18 which do pretty good with Ballard High School Students, the 7(Franklin High School), and even the 39. These routes are regular routes, that pass by the schools, in the case of the 7, been doing that forever. What is next, can’t even serve regular passengers on regular routes?

    1. It won’t affect regular routes or students from using them. It what is does prevent is the school district from paying for it and since there are Washington State laws requiring transit for students outside of what is considered walking distance the school districts will have to either pay a contractor or provide the service. But that’s dependent on a private company even bidding on the route. It seems like the law should be repealed or at least significantly amended. Congress can change this without a single Republican vote; although I’d hope they would be on board with it.

      One other “solution” would be to reduce student fares to something trivial like 10 cents. That’s what WWU students used to pay to ride the bus in Bellingham back in the 70s. I don’t remember what it is now but adjusted for inflation it’s about the same or less. Of course this would take a bite out of Metros revenue that would have to be made up; perhaps by a special property tax revenue (i.e. raid the ferry district windfall).

    2. I’m sure that would have been the next step. Public transit couldn’t provide any transit service where a private operator had “expressed an interest”. Either that or forced transit agencies to operate on the CT model (actual operations contracted to a private company) even when they had no desire to do so.

      Thankfully the current administration doesn’t treat the free market as some sort of weird religious totem.

      1. It might have run into opposition from Conservative Bastions like Utah. The UTA had done such a good job, in the UTA’s oppinion, with TRAX, they decided not to hire an outside contractor, or even UP, to operate FrontRunner. UTA personel operate the service.

  4. Yeah it won’t affect those of us who take a regular bus to school. I take the 48 everyday to Garfield, which doesn’t have any dedicated Metro buses. No schools in the district do. So your picture of Garfield up there is misleading; perhaps it should be exchanged for a picture of Mercer Island or Sammamish.

  5. I find myself continually confused by this law’s interpretation…

    Is there a private company that wishes to bid to provide this service?

    Can they provide the service for a lower cost that Metro can?

    If private companies are arguing that they can’t compete with Metro’s government subsidy, why can’t we determine what the qualifying subsidy rate is, and then price out the bids for comparison?

    After all, if private companies CAN provide service to Mercer Island high schoolers or Mariners fans, then I’m all for it… but if someone is claiming that Metro is in violation of a law when they simply are not, or can’t deliver a competing bid, then I don’t see what the problem is?

  6. Metro used to have a contract with Seattle School District for about half of their routes, mostly those which were created for desegregation purposes. They were the 700 series routes.

    First Student took over the service back in the early ’90’s. I can’t remember if it was simply federal rules (though the buses operated open-door), or if it was the Seattle school district deciding to award the routes to a different contractor.

    The last buses to operate school service were the 1100 series (AMG coaches), which were then kept around while the trolleybus overhead system was rebuilt in the early ’90’s.

    I personally DO NOT LIKE the idea of pupil transportation being provided by transit agencies. It takes away precious service hours that can be used to transport the general public.

    Over in the Tri-Cities I’m kinda famous for rallying against their operation of “school trippers” and have often considered testing the assertion of open door service. They also do field trips. Of course, there’s no visible separation in their budget for these purposes.

    Brian Bradford
    Olympia, WA

    1. Brian,
      I always find your comments interesting and informative. I’m all for efficiency but that becomes hard to decipher. It’s hard to know if school transport is adding to Metro’s bottom line or providing a subsidy. It’s a really poorly written law; I think we can agree on that. It’s not an easy fix.

      1. I think the way Metro does it in Seattle at the moment (extra trips on the 48 for example) is a good start for handling student loads.

        I’ll admit to being jealous, as when I was in school back in the ’80’s, the only way you got bus fare was if you were riding (and assigned to) one of the 700 routes. I lived exactly 2 miles from Eckstein during 7th grade, and it was hellish to walk.

        Interesting little political side bit… My PE teacher at the time (Mr. Della) is former Seattle councilman David Della’s brother! I can imagine the arguements the two had growing up.

        Its kinda funny how “johnny come lately” Community Transit is when it comes to high school pupil transport. Back in the day, what CT would do is take one of their artics, pick up a group of students (usually life skills development classes), and take them for a bus ride. None of the high schools had agreements for bus passes or anything of the sort (not even bus tickets for students in late). Of course now they’re making a huge deal out of the Edmonds School District and some ruckus about Mukilteo. Oh well…

        Brian Bradford
        Olympia, WA

    2. Minor correction, Mr. Bradford.

      The trolleybus overhead system was rebuilt in 1978-79. Old system went out in January ’78, new system went online in Sept. ’79. I was there for it all.

      1. Yes, that was when the system was thoroughly rebuilt.

        However there was a period in the early-mid 90’s where the trolley system was forced to use diesel buses.

        Come to think of it, I can’t recall the precise reason, although the buses were used on the 1,2,13 a lot. I remember thinking “hopefully nobody in a wheelchair needs the bus”.

  7. Does anyone know: is this actually going to be a change for next year in Seattle Public Schools? I work at Nathan Hale High School, which is one of the Seattle schools that provides students outside a 2.5-mile walking zone with PugetPasses. I haven’t heard anything about this change for next year, either at my school and from the District – and we’ve waded pretty deep into thinking about Metro schedules as the District proposes changes in school start times.

    Our students ride normal, non-dedicated bus routes, if that makes a difference. Maybe no private contractor could provide a service that mixes our students with the normal transit-riding hoi polloi (like myself – I don’t think I can ride a First Student bus to a school except in inclement weather).

  8. A rule is not a law. The rule is the agency interpretation of the law. The rule-making process in Washington State usually involves public (‘stakeholder’) comment and the passage of time, except in those cases where they inform you they’ve already adopted the rule because they were in a hurry (oy vay).

    In the case of this federal rule the rule was proposed, public comment was accepted, required periods of time passed, and then they did what they wanted. Part of the point of the whole exercise is that no matter how wrong the situation may be, the Obama administration will also need to publish proposed changes, accept comment, and allow time to pass before the rule can be changed.

    This, in fact, is one of the major ways in which the Bush administration could defy public opinion, agency scientists, and the rule of law. Agency heads can essentially make whatever rules they like and, while the rule is in effect, contracts are let, forests are logged, mineral rights are sold, rivers are polluted- a few years of this can be a real bonanza for a chosen few.

    Changing the rule will take time and LaHood should get on the job as soon as possible.

  9. IMO, the school district and Metro should come up with exclusive “school take-home” trips on some routes. This is a copy of a similar service Kitsap Transit offers for commuters from the ferries to get home, called “Ferry Take Home”. Here is an example:(http://www.kitsaptransit.com/bus25.html). Essentially, the only pick-up these trips make is at the school, and ONLY DROP-OFF riders en route. NO ADDITIONAL PICKUPS are made after departing the school, thus no overcrowding.

    However, unlike KT’s service, which drops off riders near their homes, Metro’s service would stay on regular arterial routes. In addition, the trips would strictly avoid wheelchair boardings and bike rack use to keep the students running on time (think the Ride-Free Area until recently).

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