Bus in the night

DC Streetsblog reported last week news regarding federal contracts for private transportation companies.  Here are the highlights:

Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported yesterday that the U.S. DOT would end a Bush-era mandate to reward new transit projects for using private contractors — but a similar pro-privatization rule for bus service remains in effect, preventing local transit agencies from competing with private charter companies.

The rule was intended to shield “private charter operators from unfair competition by federally subsidized public transit agencies,” as the Bush administration wrote in its initial regulatory justification.

As a result, public transit agencies were barred from offering bus services to special events if a private company was able to do the job instead. The rule prompted outcries from the American Public Transportation Association, but it has yet to be overturned by the Obama administration.

The article noted instances where this had reprecussions, like the Minnesota state fair, the Indianappolis 500 and Redskins game.

The Associated Press explained how the rule works:

Under a Federal Transit Administration regulation that took effect May 1, local transit authorities no longer can offer game-day shuttle service to fans if that service is: not part the regular schedule; if the fee is higher than the regular fare; or if a team or other group is involved, and negotiate a special price for the service.

The penalty for failure to comply is stiff – loss of federal transportation funding.

“Basically all federal money is in jeopardy. They don’t mess around,” said Jim McAteer, director of planning for Nashville’s Metropolitan Transit Authority.

I understand the impetus to want to give business to local charter companies.  However, this rule does nothing to help citizens, especially at moments when public transit is needed most.  What makes more sense in Washington, DC, ordering a couple of dozen private buses who are not beholden to anyone for Redskins games or letting the Metro staff extra buses to move fans to and from the game?  That day of busing should be a boon to the public transit system as the buses will be full and the extra fares will helpy buoy murky finances.

The two problems with this rule are lost opportunity for public transportation systems and confusion for the public at the price of more expensive service with an unknown provider.  I realize I am particularly public transit dependent (as I do not own a car), but when I want to get someplace – especially to a large public event – the first thing I do is go to the city’s public transportation website.  For those who do not normally take public transit, this is a fabulous opportunity for a city and its service to orient new customers with how it works: fares, coverage, times and services available.  Moreover, public transportation is accountable to its customers as organizations are public entities.  Private companies hired for one time service are not really accountable to anyone and can provide subpar service at little political or actual cost (and potentially profit).