Before September 2002, Foothill Transit in West Covina, Calif., was caught in what Public Information Officer Tom Mullen calls a “gray area” regarding Federal Transit Administration (FTA) regulations. The agency found itself providing a tripper service for five local schools – essentially running buses just for students.
“Nobody around here really knows how we got involved with this,” Mullen said. “It’s something that we just kind of inherited.”
But Foothill did know that it wanted out of the predicament. Schools would often call the day before an early release and ask if the buses could change their schedules accordingly. “Then we’re faced with the choice of either running the buses as published – as we’re required to – and run empty buses, or we make this change,” Mullen said. “Because, realistically, no one is riding the lines anyway except for these school kids.”
Under FTA rules, transit agencies cannot engage in bus operations that are exclusively for the transportation of students and thereby compete with school bus contractors. But when Foothill would have to alter its posted schedules without a chance to put out a flyer, it was too clear that the schools were getting special treatment.
At the time of a major service increase last September, Foothill pinpointed its escape from the borderline service. The agency plotted four new lines that would continue serving the schools while including the surrounding area. The school routes became parts of larger lines that other members of the public could take advantage of. Additionally, Foothill made it clear that these schedules were etched in stone, and there would be no last minute adjustments.
Though the new policy fit Foothill’s needs, Mullen said the agency worried about how the schools would react. As it turned out, they were generally appreciative to still be included in the service. “All of us were pleasantly surprised by their reaction,” Mullen said. “Pretty much every person I talked to from the schools understood why we needed to make the change.”
Steve Boyd, assistant principal at El Roble Intermediate School in Claremont, says the service adjustment has worked out well for his students. “If we have an early release, the kids need to find another route home – which they can do,” he said. “There are three different Foothill routes that are within three blocks of us.”
With school budgets across the country in a state of deterioration and pupil transportation often among the first things to be cut, Mullen said that more and more transit agencies will face a situation similar to Foothill’s. “Public transit needs to be prepared for those kinds of demands and work schools into their regular schedules rather than get into a bad situation that’s hard to get out of,” he said.