TRAVERSE CITY — Federal regulators ordered a halt to public bus routes that many students in Suttons Bay take to and from school.
The Federal Transit Administration said the Bay Area Transportation Authority needs to cease several bus routes -- which serve as the de-facto way to get to class for about half of the 600 students enrolled in Suttons Bay Public Schools -- because they violate regulations intended to prevent unfair competition between federally funded public transit agencies and private school bus operators.
BATA routes have saved Suttons Bay schools roughly $1 million since 2010, allowing the district to retain teachers and keep class sizes from inflating, SBPS officials said. The FTA order could end all that.
"When you try to create ways to save taxpayer money, what ends up trumping things in the end is commercial interests," Suttons Bay Superintendent Mike Murray said.
The district began paying BATA about $128,000 annually for 400 bus passes at the start of the 2010 school year.
But seven "flex routes" introduced by BATA that year drew scrutiny from the National School Transportation Association, a group of private school bus manufacturers, operators and contractors that provides a wide range of services to members, including lobbying federal lawmakers and regulatory agencies.
The Washington-based NTSA filed a complaint with the FTA in April 2011 arguing the routes were created solely to bus students to and from school, which amounts to a violation of FTA regulations. The FTA upheld that complaint on March 8 and said BATA must discontinue the routes in question within 90 days, or appeal the decision.
BATA receives about $1 million annually, or about 15 percent of its budget, from federal funding sources.
Tom Menzel, BATA's executive director, disagreed with the FTA order. He said BATA worked with state transportation officials and argued the flex routes do not violate any federal or state regulations.