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.

  • Robin Phillips

    First of all the Charter Rule has been around since the ’70’s. Secondly cost for the trip versus fare to the customer has to be identified. The Cost of running the Seattle shuttle to the private event was not $3 that was the fare. The other $17 dollars of the cost was picked up by the tax payers. If someone can pay $50 dollars for a seat at the game, $20 for parking at the stadium, why should I be subsidizing their bus ride? It is a scam by big sports and events to shift the costs to the taxpayers and add to their bottom line. Why should I be paying to shift costs to me?

  • Robin – your argument could be made against pretty much any transportation project or service. If you want to have a frank discussion about the costs and benefits, you’d likely find that it’s cheaper to provide subsidized bus service for these people than to cover the subsidies to their car trips should you not provide that service.

    If you want to start talking about me paying for huge highway projects I don’t use, you’ll probably start talking about their indirect benefit to me – and then I can use the same indirect benefit argument about the congestion reduction caused by transit to ballgames.

    Elana – It’s probably easier for her to make the change for Washington alone than to end up with conservative Senators (who answer to folks like this Robin Phillips) fighting her for a universal change.

  • Robin Phillips

    I am a transit user and alternative mode advocate. I have worked for years with special needs transportation and watched Medicaid make the same argument as these for profit professional teams: we think that these are residents of this community and this is community transportation. Transit is an expensive and limited resource. Publicly funded transit is key for mobility and independence not just for poor people on on the day of the game. Using these valuable public assets as program or event transportation reduces the resource available to the broader community. In both the Medicaid and game day service examples
    the vehicles are owned by the transit organization and paid for by the taxpayers. There are legal ways to do “game day services” and use public assets to do it, many do. That is a community decision on how to spend their limited transit dollars and use their assets. What the Murray amendment does is make it a political decision. I am glad Ben that you want to support hard up football and baseball fans but the resources to do so do not come out of the air. I have not lived in a community yet that has all the money they need for transit. The limited network we have for people who are transit dependent is fragile and interconnected. In rural communities the only connection to jobs, education, or a train, bus or plane out of town is provided without or with minimal taxpayer subsidy. The viability of those small businesses around the country is dependent on their charter and tour services to make them profitable. To get rid of the charter rule could mean that the football fans win at cost to people who do not have choices and cannot get to the doctor or the store affordably. Good fences make good neighbors and the Charter rule was put in place to support public private partnerships and reduce the ability for politically powerful interests to use the transit system as their private limo service. The public takes 750 million trips a year on private buses. Those are significantly unsubsidized trips. The charter rule makes that possible. If you want affordable trips think about user side subsidies through employers and social services. The end point for undermining the charter market is pushing more and more people on to subsidized transportation costing the taxpayer more at a time when we are looking for ways to develop more service and find the money to maintain what we have.

  • A good Vancouver limousine service will help you do just that: by providing the best transportation available to you, you can make sure that such life-changing events will be made as memorable as possible.

  • archie

    Actually, Robin, the local transit service charged the special event organizers the full cost of the service. So in your example, the Mariners organization picked up the other $17.

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