The private bus industry is stepping up its fight against public bus systems that violate charter bus rules and is lobbying the federal government for clearer regulatory language and more flexible penalties that would be easier to implement and enforce.
Last July, a coalition made up of the American Bus Association (ABA), United Motorcoach Association (UMA), American Transit Services Council and many other associations sent a letter to Capitol Hill containing proposed amendments to a Senate transportation bill that seemed to give transit systems more latitude to provide charter bus service in competition with private bus operators.
“We have provisions in both the House and Senate bill that we think will go at least part way to alleviating some of these problems,” says Clyde Hart Jr., ABA’s vice president of government affairs.
A list of demands
The coalition’s aims include clarification of the language of the existing rules. “One of the things we are looking for is to have the law changed so it says ‘the Secretary of Transportation shall enforce the rules,’ rather than may,” says Linda Darr, ABA’s vice president, policy and external affairs. “Shall and may have very different meanings in legislation.”
Another amendment goal is to impose different penalty levels. Currently, the law includes a monetary penalty that requires the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to withdraw all funding from the violator. “Unfortunately, the only penalty that exists today is all or nothing,” UMA President Victor Parra says. “That’s too severe for the level of violation. There is no in between.”
Hart agrees, “It’s what I call the nuclear weapon that is never going to be used by the FTA.”
The furthest the FTA has gone in terms of putting violators on notice is to issue a cease-and-desist order. The FTA “has not found it necessary to withdraw funding from a transit agency in order to obtain compliance,” says the FTA’s legal counsel.
Transit agencies such as the Rochester (N.Y.) Genessee Regional Transportation Authority have ignored orders to cease-and-desist despite having been ordered to do so more than once, ABA’s Darr says. “I think part of the reason transit agencies don’t bother following procedures is because there is no real penalty and because of [their] constant search for money as a publicly funded agency.”
Several years ago, the private bus industry brought the problem of unchecked charter rule violations to the attention of the U.S. Department of Transportation. “We saw unfair, unchecked competition from transit agencies that were eager for more money and stepping way outside of their bounds,” Darr says.
Since that time, the FTA worked with the private bus industry to develop literature underscoring the charter rules, which was distributed to transit agencies and operators alike. “So we were off to a really good start, but I think what happened after that is politics intervened,” Darr says of the ongoing problem with penalizing violators.
Despite attempts to control transit encroachment, the problem still exists. Williamsburg, Va-based Oleta Coachlines Inc. is one such operator that has had problems with transit competition. “[A regular customer] who had booked a trip to Charlottesville, N.C., called to tell us they no longer needed our services because they had found a very good rate from someone else,” says Howard Smith, Oleta’s founder and president. Smith found out that local transit operator Williamsburg (Va.) Area Transit (WAT) lured away his customer with a much lower rate.
In order to keep the customer, Smith matched the offered rate and notified the WAT of its wrongdoing. After Smith attended meetings to speak out against the problem, WAT backed down. Smith adds, however, that another local public operation appears poised to create the same problems for Oleta.
“It’s happening everywhere,” says UMA’s Parra. “Unfortunately, there is almost no accountability.” He says the private bus industry is deploying a different strategy to deal with this issue by going on the offensive.