BY MICHAEL WALTON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Public school officials in Suttons Bay need to figure out how to transport students to and from school next fall.
Bay Area Transportation Authority officials on June 8 ended seven "flex" bus routes previously used by hundreds of Suttons Bay Public Schools students. The district's last day of school was June 5.
The Federal Transit Administration ordered an end to the routes in March after a group of private school transportation companies — the National School Transportation Association — filed a complaint. NSTA officials argued the routes were created solely to bus students to and from school, which amounts to a violation of FTA regulations intended to prevent unfair competition between federally funded public transit agencies and private school bus companies.
Now BATA officials are changing several aspects of the flex routes in order to comply with the regulations, and Suttons Bay school officials are considering other transportation options.
The district received two base bids for transportation services, one from Lansing-based Dean Transportation and the other from Cincinnati-based Auxilio Services. Dean's bid came in at about $203,000 annually and Auxilio's at about $267,000 annually.
But both figures exclude key cost factors such as fuel costs and the purchase of new buses. Suttons Bay Superintendent Mike Murray believes the overall cost of contracting with private companies will be much greater than the bids suggest.
"I think we are talking probably $400,000 to $500,000 (annually)," Murray said.
Dean Transportation is a member of the NSTA, which provides a wide range of services to members, including lobbying federal lawmakers and regulatory agencies.
District officials are comparing three possible transportation scenarios for the 2013-14 school year: contracting with one of the private firms, restarting the district's own transportation system and using the reworked BATA flex routes.
"We're just crunching numbers," Murray said.
Suttons Bay schools scheduled a June 20 public meeting on the transportation question. It will take place at Suttons Bay High School at 7 p.m.
Murray wants to recommend one of the three scenarios to the district's Board of Education in July.
Suttons Bay ended district transportation operations in 2010. The district began paying BATA about $128,000 annually for 400 bus passes at the start of the 2010 school year. The arrangement had saved the school system about $1 million until its recent end.
BATA officials' efforts to change the routes in order to comply with federal regulations include moving each stop to an easily identifiable location like a prominent intersection or business — no stops will be in residential neighborhoods — and ensuring each route contains a Suttons Bay village connector stop. Those stops link to the entire BATA bus system.
BATA Executive Director Tom Menzel said BATA administrators are working with Michigan Department of Transportation officials to implement the changes. BATA officials also will meet with FTA officials next month in Chicago to review the changes.
Menzel did not know if students will use the redesigned flex routes in the fall.
"We don't have any agreement with the schools," Menzel said. "If the parents want to buy tickets they can do that. If the school wants to buy tickets in bulk and pass them out they can do that, too."
BATA receives about $1 million, or roughly 16 percent of its overall annual funding, from the federal government.