Feds Could Soon End Pro-Transit Privatization Rule — in One State Only

The transportation spending bill passed by the Senate on Thursday includes a provision that rolls back a Bush-era  pro-privatization rule which blocks local transit agencies from providing bus service to special events -- think state fairs and NFL football games. But there's a catch: the rule is only reversed in the home state of the senator who controls the U.S. DOT's annual budget.

1fairbus0903.jpgThese fairgoers still would have to take privatized bus service under the Senate's new bill. Why? They're Minnesotans. (Photo: Star-Trib)

The provision is tucked deep in the Senate's legislation that funds federal transportation programs for next year. "None of the funds provided ... under this act," the bill states, can be spent on a rule that went into effect last year preventing transit agencies from offering special-event service that a private charter bus company could  provide instead.

Rolling back the rule theoretically would help transit agencies offer lower-cost service to fairgoers in Minnesota and football fans in Washington D.C. Event organizers in those cities, as well as several others, were forced to choose private bus service rather than local transit.

But the Senate's transportation spending bill would only reverse the bus rule "in the state of Washington" -- which happens to be the home state of Sen. Patty Murray (D), chairman of the appropriations panel that drafted the legislation.

Murray's motivation for trying to undo the rule, which the Bush administration pushed to help private bus companies avoid "unfair competition by federally subsidized public transit agencies," seems clear. Seattle Mariners fans in her home state lost out on $3 local bus service to baseball games this year, after the city turned down a private company's bid to charge nearly $20 for the same ride.

But if the pro-privatization rule can be ended in Washington state, why not make the reversal nationwide? A report today in a trade newsletter for the school transportation industry suggested that Murray made the change to help her home state play a greater role in transporting fans to next year's winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Regardless of the rationale, however, the Senate provision's limitation to Washington state could prompt lawmakers from other states to seek an expansion. The final version of the transportation spending bill will be released later this fall, after conference talks between the two chambers of Congress conclude.