With federal authorities' rejection this week of Westport's bid to extend funding for after-school bus service, First Selectman Jim Marpe said parents quickly need to find alternatives while town officials seek a waiver to restore the program.
"Given this unfortunate situation, I am advising the after-school programs and parents that the bus service will almost certainly not be available for the start of the program year and alternate travel plans should be put into place" when the new academic year begins Aug. 25, Marpe said in a statement.
Cancellation of funding for the after-school bus service, offered for many years by the Westport Transit District, arose in early July when the Federal Transit Administration notified the Norwalk Transit District, which manages Westport transit programs, that it had determined the service providing students rides to after-school programs "is an unauthorized transit service route."
He said the "stops and clientele primarily involves students and, as such, the service was deemed equivalent to a `school bus service and, thus, was `non-compliant' with federal transit regulations."
He said that local transit officials were given 30 days to present a plan to become compliant or lose federal funding for these after-school routes and the use of the NTD buses.
Marpe said the program had been "successfully operated for over 30 years in Westport" and had recently passed its triennial federal review.
"So its sudden disqualification came as a surprise," the first selectman said. "Unfortunately, the short time frame given to address the problem does not give us time to develop a solution in a manner which would meet the new federal interpretation of the regulations," he added.
"Ultimately this may not be possible at all."
Marpe said that, as soon as the town was alerted to the problem by the NTD, his office, in conjunction with state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg and the Westport Transit District directors, began a "multi-avenue effort to find solutions."
He said that with the new school year approaching, and with hundreds of students and their parents counting on the after-school rides program, "our first and primary initiative has been to obtain a stay of this ruling."
Marpe said town officials sought a five-month extension of the town's funding and continued use of the buses until Jan. 1, 2015, "so that an alternative solution can be found."
The town had formally applied for an extension to the appropriate FTA administrator, as well as to the state Department of Transportation, "which is supporting our appeal," he said.
"Senators Blumenthal, Murphy and Congressman Himes have all signed a joint letter to the FTA strongly supporting Westport's request for an extension," he added.
But on Wednesday afternoon that bid for an extension was denied by Mary Beth Mello, FTA regional administrator.
Mello "informed us that the FTA made the determination that there was no mechanism for an extension in their regulations and therefore, they denied our request," Marpe said.
"However during the conversation, Ms. Mello introduced a new appeal concept not previously mentioned to the town, which she termed applying for a waiver," he said. This would entail publicly advertising for bid the potential after-school routes to private bus companies, combined with other outreach efforts, he added.
It also will require the town to document those efforts and then securing written responses from the companies contacted that they were not interested in providing the bus service.
Marpe said he told Mello he had already made a "fairly exhaustive effort via telephone to contact a long list of known companies in the area," but he added, "no company was interested on such short notice."