Monday, February 3, 2014

RTA: Federal Transit Administration Triennial Review and a look at the federal rules

Riverside Transit Agency
The Federal Transit Administration paid a visit and reviewed the Riverside Transit Agency to assess compliancy related to the Urbanized Area Formula Grant program. The overall review commenced last August with a number of meetings that led to the feds visiting and touring the agency.

The FTA found no deficiencies when it reviewed several areas ranging from finances, to technical, to prohibitions. The feds found RTA to be in full compliance with one exception. The reviewers found that RTA's Safety Security Program Plan was outdated and recorded the finding in the final report. RTA promises to address the update by the end of March. So, RTA's compliancy with the federal government is healthy.

The Urbanized Area Formula Grant program which is a major source of federal funding that we pay into goes towards RTA transit infrastructure such as transit centers, buses, and other capital and operating projects. The federal government reviews and evaluates RTA's performance as a grant recipient every three years.

A few interesting federal rules to point out:

Public Hearings: RTA must have a written locally developed process for soliciting and considering public comment before raising a fare or carrying out a major transportation service reduction. RTA's public comment process goes beyond what's expected from the feds. The public normally has a whole month to review proposals and comment during such hearing periods which often spans between two monthly Board meetings. RTA also offers several outlets to receive comments. In fact, through the Coalition, RTA's Transportation Now, and independent bloggers, RTA and public officials receive constructive comments all the time. "Public Hearings" never close here.

Half Fare Rule: Ever wonder why bus agencies have reduced fares for seniors and the disabled? That's a federal mandate for grant recipients that is very fair. Here's the rule: Fares for these groups  during off peak hours or for an individual presenting a valid Medicare card shall not pay more than one half of the peak hour fares. The policy is very noble because many of these people are normally out of work, lack the ability to get a job, and use the bus for other constructive purposes such as doctor appointments.

No Charter Bus Service: A few folks from within the Inland Empire argue a good way for RTA to raise additional revenue is to offer charter bus service to private groups. And that is a valid idea as such service has found to be profitable when demand is sufficient. So why do the feds generally ban grant recipients from the practice? Many believe it would damage the services offered by the private sector. Some would also see the service as a government agency cash fountain and oppose it. Both are valid arguments. Private charters have proven to be profitable in the marketplace and the private sector should continue to handle this business. Strong competition leads to excelled services, more choices and better charter rates for private groups needing to book a bus. The carriers should also be inclined to stop their buses at or near RTA transit hubs. The feds do allow some exceptions.

No Premium Express Routes to Special Events: Sadly, the no charter bus rule also currently bans public agencies from offering special premium public express service to high density special events like football games and county fairs unless it is part of an existing route. The rule was implemented in 2008 which forced several transit agencies around Southern California to cancel such productive lines. Unlike charter bus service where it is reserved and traditionally open only to a select group, premium express bus service is open to any member of the public to board and ride, without advance reservation, to a high density event that is open to the public. Such special express runs certainly do not mimic traditional charter buses. They are a public transit service. The feds need to restore that definition and allow agencies to operate these buses once again.

School Trippers: Grantees are prohibited from providing exclusive school bus service unless the service qualifies and is a approved by the FTA Administrator under an allowable exemption. That's why school trippers are part of existing routes, operates like a traditional route and--very importantly--are open to the public, not just students.

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