Feds say use of Metro to bus kids illegal

According to a new Federal Transit Administration (FTA) regulation, the Mercer Island School District will have to relinquish its use of Metro buses on two school routes.

The ruling, passed by the FTA on Sept. 16, backs a 1973 Federal law that restricts school districts from using public transportation “that exclusively transports students and school personnel in competition with a private school bus operator.”

The Bush administration brought the 1973 Act to public attention earlier this spring in response to complaints from private bus companies.

“It appears that routes districts like ours have purchased from Metro for the primary purpose of school transportation are in violation of the law,” said MISD Director of Transportation Todd Kelsay, adding that the school district has two such routes in place.

After announcing its proposal in May, the FTA gave school districts and other parties involved the opportunity to “comment” on the regulation. The MISD and Seattle Metro submitted a letter explaining their reasons in opposition to the law, pointing out that 600 Island students depend on Metro’s daily service. Finding a replacement for Metro, the district wrote, would be a huge financial strain.

After reviewing more than 500 comments submitted from across the United States, the FTA stuck to its proposed ruling.

In summary, the ruling defends fair competition for private transportation providers.

“The FTA stresses that its intent with this final policy is not to overhaul its school bus operations regulatory scheme,” a clause in the Sept. 16 ruling states. “Rather ... the FTA intends to provide its grantees a basis which will allow them to continue to provide the service that FTA historically has allowed ... while simultaneously satisfying the statutory requirements.”

Meanwhile, members of the school district are busy brainstorming resolutions to the new FTA ruling, which — upon initial reading — bars the district from using Metro routes 891 and 892, buses that serve students on the South end and West Mercer Way.

“We’re thinking through every possibility and every reasonable solution: What can we do? What are the costs? What are the service level implications?” said Kelsay.

Because the FTA ruling was passed after the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, the district may legally continue its current 891 and 892 routes until the last day of school. The FTA will begin monitoring the law in September 2009. Ten months, however, is hardly a grace period for such a complicated project, said Kelsay.

“First, there’s making the decision, then getting a solution in place and communicating this to our ridership,” the transportation director said. “If we need to buy new buses — that’s one of many options — this alone takes months and months.”

Kelsay emphasized that the FTA has yet to clarify the fine print within its ruling. The district may possibly be able to get around relinquishing all of its Metro bus routes, depending on FTA statutes.

“A lot of people, including Metro, have been scratching their heads, trying to fully understand where we’re in compliance and where we’re not,” Kelsay said. “The FTA said it will issue ‘expeditiously’ another document with more specifics. That will help us.”

Superintendent Gary Plano announced the FTA decision to the School Board at its Oct. 30 meeting. Members responded with immediate concern, asking if anything could be done to get around the restriction.

“Can we bring this to WSSDA [Washington State School Districts Administration] for lobbying?” asked board member Adair Dingle. “[The Metro routes] are such a wonderful thing. Giving kids Metro passes gives them a fair amount of independence. They can go anywhere.”

Other members inquired whether the Federal law could somehow be overturned with help from state senators.

Plano responded to the Board with encouragement, adding that he and Kelsay were already researching the district’s options with Metro.

“Right now, we’re waiting for some more definitive information,” Plano said, adding that he plans to hold a meeting on the issue in early December. “There may be some community options. We will have to see.”

Kelsay estimated that the cost of hiring private bus companies to replace routes 891, 892 and possibly route 205 — which was extended to service the high school — would triple what the district 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 bus routes. The Metro passes cost $27 and can be used on any King County route.

The recent FTA legislation also affects the Bellevue School District, which uses several Metro routes throughout its neighborhoods.

Plano said that he would keep the School Board informed about the issue as new information unfolds.

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