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Proposal could end Metro transport for students

In response to a proposed federal law restricting the use of public buses for student transportation, the Mercer Island School District (MISD) and King County Metro are voicing their dissent. Both parties have written letters of protest to CFR 49, a recent proposal by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that could prohibit Metro routes from transporting students to and from school.

The statement, initiated by the Bush administration in an attempt to regulate competition between public and private bus companies, was published in the FTA’s federal register in May. Before moving any further, the FTA asked for comments — due on June 18 — from those parties affected by the legislation.

MISD Transportation Supervisor Todd Kelsay, particularly alarmed by the proposal, urged the FTA against cutting Metro school routes. Defending his request, Kelsay cited the 600 students who depend on Metro’s daily service and the district’s pressing budget constraints.

“Like many surrounding districts, declining enrollment has forced us to reduce non-instructional costs (including transportation) in order to keep the focus where it should be, on student learning. One major cost-saving adjustment implemented was to use King County Department of Transportation Metro Transit service (Metro) to transport eligible Mercer Island High School (MIHS) students,” Kelsay wrote in his letter, dated June 17.

The director went on to explain that, if the FTA proposal does pass, the money necessary for replacing the current Metro-based routes with a private bus company would have to “come at the expense of student learning as there is no other available alternative.”

Kelsay estimated that the cost of hiring private bus companies would triple what the school currently pays for Metro transportation. The school district distributes approximately 600 free Metro passes to qualifying students three times a year. The majority of students — both Island residents and non-residents — are unable to get to school via the district’s regular yellow-bus routes. The Metro passes cost $18 last year but are jumping to $27 due to soaring diesel prices.

“We pay for those students who are outside of the walk zone,” Kelsay said. “The passes we distribute are good for everywhere Metro goes. It provides [students] transportation to and from school.”

Metro representatives wrote a similar letter of concern to the FTA, echoing many of the points made by Kelsay in his comment. According to Metro Transit Contract Administrator Mike Beck, other school districts using Metro routes chimed in on the same chord.

“The districts at least want the option of going to Metro if it makes sense,” he said, adding that Bellevue and Lake Washington have also used Metro buses. “We’ve argued in particular for school services because it’s good to help districts, which are already tight on money, to save a little and put this into educational elements.”

As Mercer Island’s student population grows, so does the need for Metro transportation. Several years ago, the MISD asked Metro to introduce two routes — 891 and 892 — that snake through the Island, stopping at MIHS in the morning and afternoon. These rides are in addition to Metro’s regular Island routes, some of which also stop close to the high school.

According to Beck, the FTA has been swamped with comments sent from school districts and transportation services across the nation. Until FTA members read over the responses, no further decision on the issue can be made. Kelsay and his allies at Metro are hopeful that the proposal will fail. Yet it could be months, Kelsay said, before they hear back from the FTA.

Meanwhile, similar federal legislation has thrown Seattle football fans into a grudge.

Just last week, Metro’s $6 shuttle service to and from Seahawks games at Qwest Field was stopped due to a recently passed federal charter-service rule. The law stipulates that Metro must give up its shuttling service if a private company offers a bid. And that’s exactly what happened.

With the new legislation on its side, Seattle’s Starline Luxury Coaches signed a shuttling agreement with the Seahawks on Aug. 15. Much to the chagrin of Seattle football fans, they will now have to pay $12.50 to and from games instead of Metro’s $3 each way.

Whether or not this change is a foreshadowing of things to come for King County school districts remains to be seen.

“We understand the FTA’s push to provide more opportunities for private firms,” Baker said. “We’re not taking over as an entire [school district] bus system. We just see where we can fill holes for them.”

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