BY MICHAEL WALTON
---- — 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.
"We worked with MDOT in setting this up every step of the way," Menzel said. "Our whole goal was trying to make public transit work for all members of the community."
The FTA order leaves Suttons Bay with few options for transporting its students, Murray said.
The district can resume its own transportation operations, but Murray cautioned that requires a huge amount of money to cover fuel expenses and the costs of replacing the district's aging buses. The district currently leases eight buses to BATA.
If BATA decides to appeal the FTA order, district officials can wait for a final outcome and possibly a reversal.
Menzel said BATA needs to weigh factors like the legal costs of a drawn-out appellate process before it decides whether to appeal.
"We need to take the emotion out of this, take a step back, and look at it from a business perspective," Menzel said.
There are just under 90 days left in the SPBS calendar. That means BATA could continue its flex routes through the end of the school year without violating the FTA 's 90-day deadline.
"That would be our hope," Murray said.
Menzel said BATA is willing to continue the routes until then, as long as doing so does not violate the FTA order.
In the meantime Murray expressed frustration toward the NTSA complaint and its ramifications on the students in his district.
"The school bus manufacturers and private activists have their own lobby," he said. "I just wonder who is lobbying for the students."
NTSA officials could not be reached for this story.