Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 14, 2013

Rep. Benishek weighs in on BATA ruling

BY MICHAEL WALTON
mwalton@record-eagle.com

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Congressman Dan Benishek supports efforts to continue the Bay Area Transportation Authority bus routes used by many Suttons Bay Public Schools students.

BATA’s Suttons Bay “flex routes,” used by hundred of students to get to and from Suttons Bay classrooms, have saved the district roughly $1 million in transportation costs since 2010, allowing the district to retain teachers and keep class sizes from inflating.

But the Federal Transit Administration last month ordered BATA to cease the routes because they violate federal regulations intended to prevent unfair competition between private school bus operators and federally subsidized public transit agencies.

Benishek, an Iron River Republican who represents Michigan’s 1st Congressional District, including the Grand Traverse Region, said he understands why community members have expressed frustration over the FTA order.

”We just hate to see the feds come in and shut down a program that is working,” he said.

BATA officials will not pursue a costly legal appeal of the FTA order. Instead they want to change several aspects of the flex routes in an effort to comply with regulations.

BATA’s plans include 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, and adding bus signs with route information at flex route stops. Both changes are part of an effort to ensure the flex routes serve all members of the public — not just students — as required by regulations.

The proposed changes will be outlined in a letter and sent to the FTA. Benishek plans to send an accompanying letter of support to the FTA.

FTA officials refused to discuss the ruling on the record, a fact that didn’t surprise Benishek.

”That’s the whole problem with the federal government,” Benishek said. “You can’t get an answer out of them when you need one.”

The cease-and-desist order was issued after a group of private school bus manufacturers, operators and contractors called the National School Transportation Association filed a formal complaint against BATA with the FTA. The NSTA provides a wide range of services to its members, including lobbying federal lawmakers and regulatory agencies.

Benishek was unfamiliar with the NSTA, but he admitted interest groups often have access to “the right person” in Washington, allowing them to get stuff done.

Representatives of Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow said she was not available for an interview about the FTA ruling.

“We have not still heard from BATA or the school district in terms of asking for our office’s assistance,” Matt Williams, a spokesman for Stabenow said, adding, “If they require some assistance, our office would be more than happy to look into it further.”

Local units of government are showing support for BATA, too. The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners discussed a resolution supporting BATA in committee. The full commission will vote on the resolution Tuesday night.

Grand Traverse County commissioners passed a resolution of support last month.

Grand Traverse Commission Chairman Herb Lemcool said the BATA flex routes are a smart solution to a school funding problem. He suggested the regulations being enforced by the FTA don’t make sense for the Grand Traverse region.

“That could be an antiquated law that doesn’t work in a community that collaborates as much as we do,” Lemcool said.