Bus Owners Say Charlotte Seeks to Deny Convention Work

Private bus operators say the public-transit authority in Charlotte, North Carolina, is improperly seeking a waiver of U.S. law to prevent them from operating charters at the Democratic National Convention.

The American Bus Association, which has 20 members based in North Carolina, asked the U.S. Federal Transit Administration in a letter released yesterday to deny the Charlotte Area Transit System’s request to use its own buses to transport more than 35,000 delegates, journalists and others it expects to attend next month’s convention.

U.S. law prevents public-transit agencies from competing with motorcoach bus operators for charter business.

“For small and medium-sized businesses, this is a big deal,” said Dan Ronan, a spokesman for the bus association, based in Washington. “The big night with the speech in the stadium, that’s the equivalent of a college football game or an NFL game, and those are always big days for motorcoach companies.”

The Charlotte transit system told its regulator it needs an exemption from the U.S. law to be able to accommodate the number of people expected to attend the convention. Its buses are especially needed to transport people using wheelchairs, Assistant City Attorney Lisa Flowers said in an Aug. 7 letter to FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. The system asked for the waiver on June 1.

“A waiver request from CATS is under review within the Federal Transit Administration and we do not currently have a time frame for a decision,” Dave Longo, a spokesman for the agency, said in an e-mail.

Exhausted Efforts

The bus association told the FTA that the transit authority didn’t prove it had contacted all available private-sector bus operators and jumped in too quickly to deny them a business opportunity.

“CATS merely concludes that it has exhausted efforts to find private operators with whom to contract for charter service for the DNC,” Clyde Hart, bus association senior vice president for government affairs and policy, wrote in an Aug. 14 letter to Rogoff. “CATS does not provide a list of the private operators it contacted or a list of those private operators who have executed contracts for service. Neither does CATS provide any indication of the terms of contracts offered or executed for the charter service.”

The convention from Sept. 4-6 is where delegates will vote to nominate President Barack Obama to run for a second term.

Wheelchair Services

The transit authority defended its request, saying if FTA grants it, it will be prepared to serve patrons who need accessible buses.

“We have gone through the process locally and nationally to put ourselves in a position that if there is a need for additional buses that the private sector can’t fulfill that we have the permission to do that,” Olaf Kinard, a spokesman for the transit authority, said in an interview. “We have a certain number of buses that if they need them and no one else can provide them, that’s an option we can do.”

Joanne Peters, press secretary for the Democratic National Convention Committee, said in an e-mail that organizers have hired more than 450 private buses. “However, we have exhausted the supply of buses that meet our accessibility needs for individuals with disabilities,” Peters said. Because of that, the committee “must contract with the city for buses with increased accessibility.”

Three hundred delegates spread among 56 hotels have registered as needing wheelchair-accessible transportation, and the transit authority plans to supply 52 buses and trolleys to transport them, Flowers said in her letter to Rogoff. The authority also plans to lease as many as 60 vehicles to the convention’s transportation operators, primarily from retired buses from its fleet, she said.

“It’s a concern to our members,” Ronan said. “We’ve heard from our members, anecdotally, ‘I was expecting some work here. I was expecting to move delegates.’ Our job is to protect their rights and also to protect this law, this exemption, the way it is.”