Charlotte to Run Convention Charters Fought by Bus Firms

Charlotte’s city-run bus agency in North Carolina won a U.S. waiver to operate charters at next week’s Democratic National Convention over the objections of motorcoach companies which said they were being squeezed out.

The Federal Transit Administration’s decision temporarily sets aside a U.S. rule prohibiting taxpayer-supported transit authorities from competing with private bus operators. Similar waivers were given for political conventions in 2008 and other large, national events, Brian Farber, the FTA’s associate administrator for communications and congressional affairs, said in an e-mailed statement today.

“Between 80 and 90 percent of the bus services at the convention will still be provided by private charter bus operators,” Farber said. The action “will further ensure that all convention participants, especially participants with disabilities, have access to reliable and safe transportation options during the event.”

Delegates to Sept. 4-6 convention will formally nominate President Barack Obama to run for a second term.

The Charlotte Area Transit System said it needed an exemption for the region to transport the 35,000 delegates, journalists and other visitors expected at 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.

Below-Market Rates

The American Bus Association, a Washington-based trade group that represents charter companies and intercity operators like Greyhound Lines Inc. and Megabus, challenged Charlotte’s request, saying there were more than enough private companies to transport convention-goers. The group said the transit authority didn’t prove it contacted all available operators and jumped in too quickly to deny them a lucrative business opportunity.

No waivers were sought for this week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, said Dan Ronan, a spokesman for the bus association.

The Charlotte transit agency’s final request last week for proposals for convention services offered to pay 25 percent to 30 percent less than market rates, Ronan said.

“Our guys would lose money at that rate,” Ronan said. “The rule tries to make sure subsidized public transportation companies can’t be competing private companies because they have an unfair advantage.”

Disabled Visitors

The Charlotte transit system will have about 15 buses with its own drivers available, Olaf Kinard, an agency spokesman, said in an interview. The agency will provide another 45 buses equipped to handle people with disabilities to a private charter company, he said.

“We want the private contractors to have the opportunity for the business,” Kinard said. “If there’s any need to assist because they’re not able to meet the capacity, then we’re here.”

Three hundred delegates spread among 56 hotels have registered as needing wheelchair-accessible transportation, Flowers said in her letter to Rogoff.

The bus association, in its appeal, said the Charlotte transit agency hadn’t shown how it had reached out to private bus companies. The agency’s recent request for proposals followed at least two earlier solicitations by the Democratic National Committee, Kinard said.

In an order dated yesterday, Rogoff said there weren’t enough accessible private vehicles to meet the DNC’s needs. The Charlotte agency met the regulation’s requirement to contact all registered charter providers in the Charlotte area, he said. As of Aug. 27, the DNC had contracted with 40 private operators for 344 buses, 44 of which are accessible for people with disabilities, he said.

“The shuttles required for the event will require the combined resources of all available registered private carriers and CATS,” Rogoff said.

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