School Children Thrown Under the (Private) Bus

It seems that whenever that old cliche applies, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the Bush administration finds new ways to respond, “We’re breaking it. The fix is in.”

One of the things that the Bush administration is breaking now is public transportation for school children. Why? So that private businesses like the owner of Greyhound Bus Lines can open up new lines of business offering more expensive private bus service to school districts.

The Federal Transit Administration last month closed its comment period on a new regulation that will cut off federal funding for bus routes that it believes primarily exist to get children to and from school. Under the new rules, a school system could subsidize a child’s bus ride on public transit, but a public bus system could not significantly order its routes or schedules for the convenience of these children.

The regulations are a response to a federal court ruling in January that allowed the regional transportation authority in Rochester, N.Y., to do just that. The authority, at the urging of the school board, had created a network of new bus routes after the board changed the class times for its high schools and after the private bus service that the board had contracted with said it could not provide service during the new times. The FTA’s regional administrator, Brigid Hynes-Cherin, said the authority’s actions violated regulations governing federal mass transit funding because even though the routes could be used by general public, they weren’t primarily for the general public. Plus, she added—and here is where we get to the real nub of the issue—public bus systems can’t use federal money to provide services that compete with, or crowd out, private sector bus companies.

The court ruled, however, that Rochester was fully operating within the rules as they had been interpreted over the years by the FTA. Defeated in the courts, the FTA’s administrator, James S. Simpson, ordered the rules rewritten.

The rewrite, according to administrators of several large school districts and educational organizations, needlessly disrupts well-functioning and cost-efficient arrangements for getting students to and from school using existing public transportation systems. The Council of the Great City Schools, representing some of the nation’s largest urban school districts, said in comments to the FTA that the regulations “would prevent public transit systems from … adapting transportation routings and timetables to reflect the dynamic changes required to meet the needs of urban demographics, urban education reform, and federal education mandates.”

Other serious concerns have been voiced by groups such as Public Advocates, a California-based nonprofit legal organization that works on civil rights issues, which wrote in its comments that the regulations would “eliminate the only transportation option available” to low-income students in districts where “yellow bus service” would not be viable. The Maryland Transit Administration’s statement raised concerns about creating a two-tier system in the Baltimore school district, where some students get to ride in private school buses while others don’t.

Of course, there are cost concerns. The Washington Examiner reported June 27 that the District of Columbia public school system pays the regional Metro system $5 million a year to give its public school children subsidized rides. Neighboring Arlington County, Va., pays a private company $12 million to ferry a school population half the size of the District’s.

One of the chief beneficiaries of the FTA ruling when it goes into effect would be FirstGroup America Inc., the American subsidiary of a British company that bills itself as “the world’s leading transport company, with annualised revenues of over £5 billion ($9.8 billion) a year.” The company’s portfolio includes Greyhound Bus Lines, which it absorbed last year when it purchased Laidlaw International. And indeed, Mike Murray, the CEO and President of Operations for FirstGroup America, suggested in the company’s statement to the FTA that the proposed regulations don’t go far enough “to protect private school bus operators from federally subsidized public transit operators.”

The statement includes disingenuous claims about the cost benefits of using private bus service rather than public transportation, based largely on the significantly cheaper price of a yellow school bus (from $48,000 to $68,000) as compared to a typical public transit bus (starting at $300,000). It is, of course, unfair to compare a school bus to a municipal bus, which are constructed to different standards for different purposes. The more fair comparison would be to compare the cost of utilizing an existing public transportation network and contracting with a private operator to create a parallel school bus network, with its own personnel, equipment and administrative costs. Do this comparison in most urban school districts, as cash-strapped districts would be happy to do, and the private operator would usually lose.

But this is of no import to ideologues who believe in the god of privatization and in bending to the wishes of a private transportation behemoth. The Bush appointees at the Department of Transportation have been obsessed with privatization—from breaking up Amtrak and selling off the lucrative Northeast Corridor to the highest bidder (assuming that a private bidder would want it) to advocating privately-built toll roads as an alternative to a modest increase in the federal gasoline tax to increase funding for publicly maintained highways. (An increase of a nickel a gallon, according to the department’s own research, in 2002 would have been sufficient to meet the nation’s major road and transit system maintenance needs without resorting to tolls and privatization schemes.)

This skirmish over school bus transportation is just that, a skirmish, in the scheme of things, but it is just another sad case of corporate interest trumping public interest, with children as the potential victims.

This post previously appeared on FireDogLake.


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