Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 17, 2013

BATA doubtful about appeal prospects

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Bay Area Transportation Authority officials don’t think it’s feasible to appeal a federal order to cease the bus routes that transport many Suttons Bay Public Schools students to class every morning.

Bay Area Transportation Authority Executive Director Tom Menzel said he will recommend against an appeal of the Federal Transit Administration’s decision at March 27 BATA board meeting.

“I just don’t have the money to fight a protracted court case,” Menzel said. “They have deep pockets. We don’t.”

Menzel referred to the National School Transit Association, a trade association of private school bus manufacturers, operators and contractors.

The NSTA filed a complaint in 2011 contending several BATA “flex routes” -- which about half of the Suttons Bay’s 600 students use to get to and from school -- violate regulations intended to prevent unfair competition between federally funded public transit agencies and private school bus operators.

Kellie Dean, president of Lansing-based Dean Transportation, sits on the NSTA board of directors. Dean Transportation is one of largest private transportation companies in the country. The business’ clients include the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.

Dean could not be reached for comment.

BATA argued in response to the NSTA complaint that the flex routes constitute lawful “tripper service.” The FTA defines tripper service as regularly scheduled mass transit services that are modified to meet the needs of school students and personnel. Tripper services must clearly be open to the public, not marked or designated as exclusive for schools, and must stop only at a transit agency’s regular service stops.

But the FTA cited several reasons why the BATA routes did not meet that definition, including a letter from a private investigator named Thomas Williams.

The letter said Suttons Bay school officials called police and reported a suspicious person after Williams rode one of the flex routes. Williams also spoke with a bus driver and learned he was the first adult to ride on the particular route alone, the FTA decision states.

“This is not a public transit service,” said Jim Seal, a California-based school bus industry consultant who worked on the NSTA complaint. “This is school bus service by any other name.”

Suttons Bay Superintendent Mike Murray said police were notified about Williams because he seemed suspicious, not simply because he rode the bus.

“This is a small community,” Murray said. “If somebody that nobody knows drives out to a neighborhood, parks a car and gets directly onto a bus, we want to know who that person is.”

Students can continue riding BATA flex routes to and from school through the end of this school year, Murray said.

He and the school board are working on several transportation plans for next fall. One possibility: buying back from BATA some of the district’s buses for $1 each and resuming district transportation services.

School officials previously said they saved multiple teaching positions by eliminating those services. Murray didn’t know if resuming district transportation will result in teacher layoffs next year, but he said the district’s overall financial health is better now than in 2010, in part because of increased student enrollment.

“What we know is we have to go through everything in our budget to figure out how to take money from other expenses to pay for this,” Murray said.

Menzel said he hopes BATA can work with the FTA to address its concerns without requesting a formal appeal. Part of that process involves reaching out to local lawmakers and Michigan’s Congressional representatives. BATA officials already spoke with staffers from the office of U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek.

“I think they have a lot more influence than I do,” Menzel said. “They might be able to intercede or use their influence to talk to the FTA.”