Friday, August 29, 2014
By James Lomuscio
UPDATE The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) said today Westport may continue its after-school bus service until Dec. 31 while the town seeks alternate transportation for the students.
The FTA said it granted a request for an exemption to its regulations after Westport demonstrated no alternate bus service providers could be found.
“This is great news for Westport’s after-school programs, parents and our participating students,” said First Selectman Jim Marpe in a statement.
“I know it will be a great relief to many working families who were worrying how they were going to get their children to the after-school programs without the bus service they have come to rely on.”
In a letter, Mary Beth Mello, regional FTA director in Boston, informed Louis Schulman, administrator for the Norwalk Transit District (NTD) which runs the WTD, Marpe and James Redeker, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation (DOT), that the town’s request for an exemption was granted by the FTA “while the Town of Westport develops an alternate transportation plan.”
Mello said the FTA found that the NTD “fully complied with the notice requirements” advertising for a private bus service to transport the children once learning the municipal service was noncompliant with federal regulations.
“Additionally, NTD held a public hearing on Aug. 26, 2014, whereby those in attendance expressed a strong desire for NTD to continue providing the service while the town of Westport establishes an alternate solution,” Mello wrote. “No private operators attended the meeting.”
At Tuesday’s meeting attended by state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, Dewey Loselle, Westport’s operations director, Karen Bleitel, the director of religious education for Temple Israel, and a few parents, attendees stressed that ending the service on such short notice would cause parental hardship, particularly for single parents, as well as households in which both parents worked.
“The rug has been pulled out from everybody’s feet right as school starts,” Loselle told Nancy Carroll, NTD chief operating officer, at the meeting.
The WTD learned from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) Aug. 1 that the after-school bus service it has run for more than 30 years, shuttling children to religious education and myriad activities, was in violation of federal law for a municipal bus service. By continuing the service, the NTD and the WTD both ran the risk of losing federal funds.
The DOT made its determination following the results of a Southwestern Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA) study commissioned by the town in 2012 to examine the ailing WTD, which had dwindling ridership.
“Generally, no federal financial assistance for transit projects or operators may be provided to FTA grant applicants unless the applicant agree not to engage in school bus operations in competition with private school bus operator,” Mello wrote.
She added that an exemption to the restriction can be granted if it can be determined that private school bus operators were unable to provide adequate transportation “at a reasonable rate and in accordance with applicable safety standards.”
Mello said that after reviewing the NTD’s exemption application, the FTA determined “an exemption from the statutory constraint on school bus operations is warranted.”
“We’re thrilled, of course, that we’ll be able to keep the program rolling at least until January,” said Loselle, “and we’re pleasantly surprised that the federal government responded as quickly as it did, and we’re thankful.”
Steinberg echoed Loselle’s surprise over the FTA’s quick response.
“This outcome was far from certain and even a little unexpected,” Steinberg said. “It took a truly collaborative effort to carry the day, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
Steinberg added that he plans “to immediately commission a committee to explore the best way to bring the bus route into compliance with federal regulations for 2015.”
“And of course, we’re going to need that long overdue transit district bus study that SWRPA has not released,” he added. “It’s eight months overdue.”
The Selectman’s Office said there is substantial planning and coordination that needs to occur before the service can begin running again, but that “it seems probable” it will be available again beginning Monday, Sept. 8.
Marpe, who thanked Connecticut’s congressional delegation for their help in securing the exemption, added that while this is a good success for Westport, it is still only a temporary reprieve.
“It does give us the time as a community to discuss how to develop a plan for post Jan. 1,” he said.
Posted 08/29/14 at 04:02 PM
I’m glad that the funding has been continued temporarily to avoid disruptions to longstanding and worthwhile after school programs for our kids.
OTOH, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised that we should expect the federal, or even our town government, to pay for transportation to activities provided by private organizations that provide such services for school kids.
Yes, I’m sure they are great programs, but I would think it appropriate for the programs to either arrange for transportation options or privately line up the NTD and include the transportation expenses into the cost of each program.
In some cases, this would seem to be rubbing up against the preclusion of government funding of religious activity, but in any case it doesn’t seem to me that it should be a cost borne by taxpayers at any level.