Thousands of urban public school students in the Bay Area may not get a ride to school, due to a regulation proposed by the Federal Transit Administration, according to area transit and school officials.
In a notice published last month, the agency indicated it planned to tighten regulations aimed at helping private "yellow school bus" companies compete in providing home-to-school transportation.
Federal rules long have prohibited federally supported public transit agencies from providing school bus service, but certain types of service is exempted from that rule.
In the East Bay, about 30,000 schoolchildren use AC Transit buses to get to and from school, paying $15 a month for discounted youth passes. While many of those trips are on regular routes used for nonschool commuters, some of them with route numbers between 600 and 699 are specially scheduled and routed to serve specific schools. Local officials fear that the change sought by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would ban those special routes.
"The FTA seems unaware of the fact that most of the private companies are not interested in providing service in difficult urban areas," wrote Chris Peeples, president of AC Transit's governing board, in an e-mail encouraging East Bay officials and residents to oppose the regulation change.
"It also seems to be unaware," he added, "that urban school districts around the country, but particularly in California, do not have the millions of dollars it would take for them to operate their own bus service."
Federal Transit Administration spokesman Paul Griffo said that because the regulation process is under way, the agency cannot address specific concerns such as those raised by AC Transit.
But he did say that the change was similar to a recent regulation prohibiting public transit agencies from competing with charter bus services.
That regulation, he said, provided for a Web site on which private transportation companies could register. That made it easier for public transit agencies to determine if their services could be privately contracted. If no companies stepped forward, then the public agencies did not conflict with the federal rules.
Students, parents and school officials were nonetheless alarmed by the proposed school transportation rule, saying it could be devastating because so many students rely on those special bus routes to get to and from school every day.
The Oakland school district only uses private bus contractors for 1,500 special education students, and that costs roughly $8 million a year, district officials say.
"If this came to pass, it would be a disastrous development for Oakland and for many school districts in California," said Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland school district. Flint said it would be "a huge financial burden" for the district to pay for private contractors, and that it wasn't clear whether private companies would even be willing to serve all of the areas covered by AC Transit.
Skyline High School, a school in the Oakland hills that draws its 2,000 students from across the city, would be hit particularly hard. Transit officials estimate that roughly 22 buses line up each morning and afternoon to shuttle teenagers to and from school, more than two miles from MacArthur Boulevard, the nearest bus line.
"More than half of the school relies on these buses," said Isabel Rodriguez-Vega, a Skyline High School student who writes about youth issues for the Oakland Tribune's education blog.
If the regulations change, she said, "I think a lot of students wouldn't have a mode of transportation to school, because a lot of the students live in the flatlands, and it would make it a lot harder to get to and from school."
Skyline parent Anna Treadwell said she was baffled by the proposal. Treadwell says it would cause hardship for families without cars or who can't afford the fuel it would take to make the trip each day. It would also intensify the traffic on Skyline Boulevard, she said, which is already chaotic.
"You can barely get up there as it is," Treadwell said.
Treadwell said the proposal sounded so outlandish that she didn't believe it would happen. "I can't imagine they would really do it," she said.
Transit officials also expressed doubts that the Federal Transit Administration would get very far with the regulation change, citing national and state transportation groups that were already rallying opposition to it.
"We're certainly going to protest it," said Jim Gleich, AC Transit deputy general manager, noting that members of the American Public Transportation Association, who met this week in San Francisco, shared that intention. "People (in Washington) who work most directly with Congress were outraged and seemed convinced that it wouldn't be allowed to move forward."
And Josh Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association, said his group's members are concerned that the proposed rule would "further reduce public transit's ability to serve communities" at a time when transit funding is being cut in state budget deliberations.
"Many, many California school districts have essentially given up," he said, "They don't fund home-to-school transportation."
If they did, Michael's Transportation in Vallejo would be happy to step in and fill the gap, said the company's marketing manager, Allen Douglas.
"It would be a great opportunity for private carriers, without question," he said. "We can provide probably better service than the (public) transit service and probably a safer service, too."