After-School Bus Service: Uh-Oh…

1st Selectman Jim Marpe today issued the following report, on the Westport Transit District’s after-school bus program:

After 30 years of successfully operating this service, the Federal Transit Administration recently determined that the after-school bus service provided by the Norwalk Transit District — Westport’s bus service operator — is considered an unauthorized public transit service route.

Because the stops and clientele involved only students, the FTA deemed the service “equivalent to a school bus service” and thus “non-compliant” with Federal transit regulations. Westport was given 30 days to become compliant or lose federal funding (65% of program costs) for the service, and the use of the buses.   With the start of the school year upon us, this decision took us by surprise, especially since the program had recently passed its triennial review.

Since receiving this disappointing notification, which potentially affects over 200 families and several hundred students, we have been actively working with our transit directors and state and federal representatives to first, seek a stay of this ruling and second, request an extension which would allow the funding and service to continue until January 1. State Representative Jonathan Steinberg has been particularly helpful in coordinating the legislative delegations and federal offices.

FTA logo

We hoped this extension would provide a reasonable amount of time for the Town and programs to see if it is possible to become “compliant,” while still safely serving our students, or explore and develop alternatives to the current system.

Senators Blumenthal and  Murphy and Congressman Himes also jointly signed a letter supporting Westport’s request for an extension, citing that ending this service will cause hardship to the many families and students who rely on it.

FTA regional administrator Mary Beth Mello had stated that she would provide Westport with a response to its extension request by today. Unfortunately, it was not the response we were hoping for. Ms. Mello informed us that the FTA determined “there was no mechanism for an extension in their regulations,” and denied our request.

However, Mello introduced a new appeal concept not previously mentioned to Westport, which she termed “applying for a waiver.” This entails publicly advertising for bid the potential after-school routes to private bus companies, combined with other outreach efforts. It also requires documenting these efforts and obtaining written responses that the contacted companies were not interested in providing this service, or would not provide it at a “reasonable” price.

The Norwalk Transit District operates Westport's buses.

The Norwalk Transit District operates Westport’s buses.

Marpe told Mello that Westport had already made a fairly exhaustive effort via phone to contact a long list of known companies in our area that provide such services. No company was interested at the time, or had the capacity to provide the needed service on short notice. This oral confirmation of our effort, however, did not satisfy the FTA since it requires substantial written confirmation of lack of interest in order to approve the waiver application.

We have made the determination that it is still in Westport’s best interest to try to apply for this waiver application. Working with the NTD, we will make our utmost effort to rapidly proceed with the required advertising and outreach. We will prepare the necessary documentation to present to the FTA for its approval. If it is approved, the NTD will then be able to restart our service for an as yet undetermined length of time.”

As you can surmise, even if we are able to accomplish the required “waiver” tasks in a very ambitious time frame, it is unlikely that we would receive waiver approval from Washington before the start of the school year. While I like to be optimistic, the likelihood of Westport receiving a waiver approval at the Washington level is unknown at this time.

Given this unfortunate situation, I am advising the after-school programs and parents that the bus service will almost certainly not be available for the start of the program year, and alternative travel plans should be put into place. We know this will be a hardship and may be more costly for many parents.

We will continue to work hard to resolve this issue. Hopefully, we will be able to obtain a waiver and have the bus service restored at some point during the fall.

16 responses to “After-School Bus Service: Uh-Oh…

  1. Barack Hussein Obama strikes again !

    Another federal agency run amuck.

    🙂

    • For a brief history of the FTA, go to: http://www.fta.dot.gov/about/14103.html.

      Strictly factual without the politics above.

      As for the statement that the after-school route “is considered an unauthorized public transit service route [b]ecause the stops and clientele involved only students,” I would forcefully remind the FTA that the route is available to anyone that hails the bus., not just students. Surely, there is an appeal process that goes beyond a regional administrator!

  2. Jill Greenberg

    While I am not so quick to blame Obama one can’t help but wonder what type of political payback this represents. Does anyone know how we could be out of compliance for 30 years without anyone/agency taking notice? What has changed?

    • jerrymacdaid

      Well, Westport (and Fairfield county in general) is the land of the 1%ers so why not pull the plug. Putting aside the fact that the 1%ers probably aren’t the majority of the bus riders.

      • jerrymacdaid

        Or, it’s what David said which appears way more informed than my sorry post.

    • jerrymacdaid

      David – very helpful comment but you might want to add a last name (so sign your posts) or Dan may feel obliged to delete you post.

      • Dan will let your post hang 5 hours if it jives, 20 minutes if it doesn’t. 🙁

        • Not true. Dan cannot monitor comments 24/7/365. Dan tries to strike a balance between not allowing any post to appear until he approves it (very unwieldy and untimely), and trusting people to follow the guidelines at the top of the comment box about using your real name.

          Dan runs “06880” to the best of his ability. Dan also tries to have a real life, and to earn a living by writing and coaching. Thus, Dan is not always at his computer. When Dan does see a comment without a name that has slipped past, Dan deletes it. Sometimes it is immediate, sometimes not. Dan apologizes for any inconsistencies in his life.

          • Mea Culpa Dan,
            Sorry I jumped to an erroneous conclusion based only on the blog times of the posts and the overt warnings by Jerry. I concluded you liked David’s post better than Ralphie’s. It never occurred to me you were not a 24/7 guy 🙂 I am really sorry if I offend you or hurt your feelings, cause you are one of the best Westporters I have known.
            Sorry, Buddy 😉

    • Jill Greenberg

      Thanks David,
      So what you are saying is that the town actually knew this was coming up months ago. As our use of the entire bus system has constricted the way these routes are used has become more like a private than a public service. The regulations, which the town governing bodies has known about for some time or someone in the town has known about for some time require that the general route be in public use, whereas the route as it currently stands is solely for the use of students’ travel between two specific points. And the reason for this restriction on grant funds is ensuring that a public entity (the bus system in this case) does not hold an unfair advantage over private business.

  3. Lawrence Zlatkin

    This is an example of government at its worst. After 30 years, and with less than 30 days notice in the dog days of August, a government agency reverses its prior interpretation of the law and callously informs the beneficiaries of its new found wisdom. If that isn’t arbitrary and capricious, I don’t what is. Sadly, the parents of these kids will be clogging the roads with cars, while we have a public transportation alternative that we all are supposed to be encouraged to use.

  4. Mary Ann West

    Years ago I had met with Mr. Landon regarding the after-school bus issue, as kids hang around waiting for parents or leave with friends, at least the Westport Transit arranged for a late bus into town from Staples.

    In a nearby town, they have after-school buses that are directed to each quadrant in town. His quick response to my suggestion was “That will cost at least $200k”. That other town also dropped kids off at after school programs & childcare, charging the programs a per head surcharge by the bus company.

    This isn’t rocket science, nor is there the need to blame the President for every ill that befalls us, although I get it, the opportunity to vent was waiting for you, the programs and the school bus provider can fix this without federal funds or the head butts, if there is a will, ’cause you know there is a way.

  5. Will McManus

    Perhaps our friend and neighbor, Bridgewater can assist in the interim with their van service?

  6. Sandy Soennichsen

    Guess David was beaten by Goliath this time around (way to go Dan) since I don’t see his post on here anymore. C’mon David, if you’re going to talk the talk you best learn how to walk the walk. And sorry Dan, I can’t find a smiley key on my keyboard.

  7. Bart Shuldman

    We should expect more of things like this–the federal government is trillions in debt and out state is billions in debt–and then add in the trillions and billions in unfunded liabilities. We will all have to get use to ‘paying’ for serviceas both our state and federal government deal with their financial mess and commitments.

    However, this is a great opportunity for an entrepreneur to build a new business. Point to point transportation for our children to go to afternoon programs from our any of our schools should make for a new business. The service is needed, there is a built in demand and someone just needs to supply the service. And my guess, once the private sector takes over, we will avoid the horrible 30 day notice of stopping the service. Only government could make such a dramatic and badly impactful decision as this one.

    Instead of putting this on Westport, someone should step up and start a better and more efficient system. Think FedEx–they make money and out postal service with a built in customer loses $2 billion in just one quarter.