Fair buses aren't rolling so smoothly
For the first time, Metro Transit isn't the main shuttle service. That, plus large crowds, has created hassles.
By JIM FOTI, Star Tribune
Dressed in shorts and pushing strollers, Minnesotans who found themselves in long lines for free State Fair shuttle buses were unwitting bit players in a nationwide privatization debate that has affected events from college football games to the Indy 500.
Federal rules revised last year mean that, after 16 years, Metro Transit is no longer allowed to contract for charter work that private transportation companies are willing and able to do. Over the fair's first weekend, the transition left some people waiting an hour or more for even short rides to the fair and contributed to chaos at the bus lots on Como Avenue.
"There's quite a learning curve this first year," Jim Canine, president of Lorenz Bus Service, said Wednesday from the fair. The fair's big jump in attendance -- for the first six days, it's more than 9 percent ahead of last year -- was a major factor in delays, he said, and buses from other companies continue to be added.
Lorenz, which bills itself as the largest charter company in the state, used to take care of about 40 percent of the shuttle rides, with Metro Transit handling the rest. Now the transit agency has said goodbye to a half-million riders, and the dozens of buses it normally contributes -- including high-capacity articulated buses -- aren't being used for the fair's free shuttle service, which operates from 33 close-in park and rides and is paid for by the fair. Metro Transit is continuing to operate some of the paid shuttles from farther-out lots, as those aren't considered charter routes.
The Federal Transit Administration says that the rules prevent "unfair competition" between public services and private companies, and that the agency "has received a great deal of positive feedback about the rules from both public and private operators."
"What I'm hearing from members across the country is that it's working very, very well," said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, which represents 800 private operators. "All we wanted was a fair and level playing field," he said, noting that public transit agencies get subsidies for everything from fuel to wheelchair lifts.
He said events such as the Indy 500, the Kentucky Derby and Washington Redskins games had switched to private operators.
'A very long time'
"Positive" is not the word Amy Reilly of Minneapolis would use to describe her most recent experience with the fair shuttle. She arrived with her family at the Church of Corpus Christi in Roseville around 8:45 a.m. Monday. "People were just pouring into the park and ride lot, and there was no bus in sight for a very long time." Reilly, who has been going to the fair for a decade, waited almost an hour, and "we've never had a problem like that."
When a bus finally did come, she said, it quickly filled, leaving perhaps 150 people still waiting.
Others described ugly scenes and long waits at the bus lot where fairgoers catch buses back to the park-and-ride lots.
Canine acknowledged some early "pandemonium," particularly on Saturday, when threatening skies prompted huge numbers of fairgoers to try to head home at the same time. In Reilly's case, a driver called in sick at the last minute, and no backups were immediately available, he said.
For his part, Canine also preferred the public-private partnership.
"I wanted to see Metro Transit stay involved because of their tremendous capacity," Canine said. Not only does the agency have articulated buses that can hold 100 people, but it's also easier to have buses on standby. "A private company doesn't have those kind of resources."
"We hear that in town after town and city after city," said James LaRusch, general council for the American Public Transportation Association. Because the FTA controls billions of dollars in funding, he said the changes have "really kind of chilled public transportation agencies in their provision of services."
Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said his agency more or less broke even on its overall State Fair operations last year. The fair spends about $1.2 million a year to run the free shuttles, which provided about 876,000 rides last year, said Steve Granz, transportation manager for the fair.
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who's in charge of the House Transportation Committee, has been meeting with both public and private bus operators about the FTA rules, said his spokesman, John Schadl. He said that Oberstar's primary concern is that over-the-road coach buses aren't as well-suited to the task of serving as shuttles -- they have less capacity, use more energy, and are harder to maneuver than transit buses.
"In this case, you had two types of services that weren't really conflicting with each other or even competing with each other," Schadl said.
In June, 19 members of Congress wrote to Oberstar and U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., to ask that the infrastructure subcommittee address what the signers called the "ill-advised FTA rulemaking."
The State Fair shuttle fleet is a mix of motorcoaches and transit buses, and Canine says he'll have about 80 buses ready to handle Labor Day weekend crowds -- though it's possible that attendance may ebb after last weekend's crush.
"We could be all dressed up with no place to go," he said.
Jim Foti • 612-673-4491