Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 3, 2013

BATA hopes to save routes used by minority students in Suttons Bay

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Bay Area Transportation Authority officials hope to convince federal regulators to rethink a cease-and-desist order that could eliminate bus routes many Suttons Bay students, a majority of whom are minorities, ride to school.

BATA officials decided against pursuing a costly formal appeal of the Federal Transit Administration order that gave the public transit agency 90 days to either cease several Suttons Bay “flex routes,” or submit a plan for bringing the routes into compliance with regulations intended to prevent unfair competition between private school bus operators and federally subsidized public transit agencies.

BATA instead wants to change several aspects of the flex routes in an effort to comply with regulations, and wants to make sure the FTA realizes its decision effects many minority students who attend Suttons Bay Public Schools, BATA Executive Director Tom Menzel said.

“We’re serving a community with a high percentage of minority students and an income level that is not very high. If we take away what we’re doing, they might not have a way to get to school,” Menzel said.

BATA introduced the flex routes in 2010, the same year Suttons Bay schools began buying bus passes in bulk from the public transit agency.

Since then the routes serve as de-facto school transportation for about half of the 600 students enrolled in the district. Native American and Hispanic students comprise 53 percent of the students who receive BATA bus passes from the district, Suttons Bay Superintendent Mike Murray said. Many students who ride the bus also come from a lower socioeconomic status.

“It directly impacts those students who have the least resources available to come up with alternative transportation means,” Murray said.

Alvin Pedwaydon, tribal chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said neither BATA nor the school district had contacted the tribe about the FTA order. He declined further comment.

Suttons Bay community members saw the flex routes as a creative way to lower district costs -- the routes have saved Suttons Bay schools roughly $1 million since 2010, allowing the district to retain teachers and keep class sizes from inflating. Now the community is expressing frustration over the FTA’s interference, Murray said.

School officials and board of education members have not decided what to do next year if the flex routes are ended, but Murray said the district will find a way to provide its students with transportation.

One hope lies in changing the BATA flex routes so they comply with federal regulations. BATA is looking at connecting the flex routes with the Suttons Bay Village Loop route, an hourly loop that will be launched next month as part of BATA’s new operational model.

“That would encourage more general ridership and provide more connectivity to Traverse City,” said Kelly Yaroch, director of human resources and operations for BATA.

BATA officials will also consider adding bus stop signs, including route information, at flex routes stops.

The FTA cited lack of signage and exclusion of the general public as two reasons for the cease-and-desist order.