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.
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.
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.