/ Opinions / Our View: State, federal transit rules need immediate overhaul

Our View: State, federal transit rules need immediate overhaul

As our reporting over the past several weeks makes clear to us, the area’s Northwoods Transit Commission is doing everything it can to put private-sector transportation companies out of business.

In so doing, they are bending rules beyond recognition — rules that are intended to safeguard private companies — and the DOT is apparently aiding and abetting the commission in its efforts. In the meantime, we continue to hear complaints that the transit commission is failing the vulnerable members of our population, especially the elderly and disabled.

As we reported last week, the transit commission was found to have violated a federal charter rule that prohibits the commission from providing private charter service except under strict conditions. The commission must generally notify private companies in the area — which it did not do in the recent rule violation — and it must stand down if a company expressed an interest in providing the service.

As DOT officials have expressed, the rule is designed to protect the private sector from unfair competition from government subsidized entities, of which the Northwoods Transit Commission is one. There’s simply no way a private business can compete with the transit commission when the private company must finance its own vehicle purchases while government grants subsidize 80 percent of the transit commission’s bus purchases.

It’s not that the events being chartered aren’t worthwhile. They clearly are. But no matter how worthy they are, privately sponsored events should not be receiving tax subsidies in the form of low-cost or free transportation from government transit systems, at least not without extensive public debate and approval.

For one thing, to give a deal to one means giving deals to all to avoid charges of discrimination, and that’s unsustainable. For another, it creates at least the appearance of impropriety when the event sponsors are also donors to the transit commission. That sends a message that nonprofits need to pay to play, even if the message is unintentional.

The transit rules are partly to blame for what is a growing sense that the Northwoods Transit Commission has strayed far from its mission of helping vulnerable populations, and indeed has entered the fast lane toward becoming a special-interest enterprise.

We discovered, for instance, that the transit charter rule only prohibits the transit commission from serving as a charter for a private event without notification if the event is a one-off event. If it’s an annual event, it’s perfectly OK for the transit commission to invade the territory.

We would ask, why? It would seem to us that the private nature of the event — say a yearly festival sponsored by a nonprofit civic group or a chamber of commerce — should be the deciding factor about the transit commission’s ability to provide the service, not its annual occurrence. The rule needs to change.

Then, too, as we report in today’s paper, the transit commission was going to provide an exclusive shuttle service for the LUHS Nordic ski team but was told they could not do so, at first, when a private company, StarGazer, expressed an interest.

Still, with the DOT’s help, they found a way around the rule: Just advertise it as a public route — wink, wink — and everything is good, the DOT told them. Call it a pilot project. So they throw it up on their website — no days, times, or locations listed — and ask people to call in for details.

Did we really expect ski enthusiasts in the general public to be scouring the transit commission’s website for a subsidized ride to Winter Park? It was pro forma minimal advertising, a technicality really, enough to pass muster and to allow the transit commission to get its way, and the result was exactly what we would all expect: The transit commission gave 1,271 rides to the private ski team — of which transit commission chairman Erv Teichmiller’s granddaughter was a member — and exactly zero to the general public.

Under Mr. Teichmiller’s leadership, the idea of public transit has become a farce.

This kind of manipulation should cease immediately, and the Department of Transportation should devise its own rules to protect the private sector, if the federal rules are so lenient that a rogue transit commission can drive a bus through them.

If the DOT won’t tighten up the regulations, we ask our lawmakers to do so.

And those who have chartered this commission — Oneida and Vilas county governments — should stop standing on the sidelines, pretending that they have nothing to do with the commission’s operations.

The truth is, there is a way to subsidize private events and programs, and that is to take a contribution request to the appropriate local body of government. It’s perfectly legal for a local government to make a contribution — it happens all the time — if the event or program serves a public purpose. 

It may well be that a contribution could cover transit costs for a city or town festival or some other program, but let the public and elected officials have a debate and decide the issue. 

Let the private sector have a voice. Let the taxpayers have a voice. Let someone other than Erv Teichmiller have a voice.

Some might point out that the transit commission is composed of elected officials, but they are appointed to the commission and the commission itself is not a governing body of any municipality, town, or county. Those elected officials, whose decisions are directly accountable to voters, should make a public call.

As such, the transit commission should stick to its core mission, and that is to serve our vulnerable population groups, especially the elderly and the disabled. Our investigation into that mission is continuing, but so far we have reason to believe that population is not being as fully served as it might be if the transit commission wasn’t busy doing other things.

Serving the transportation needs of the disabled and the elderly is what ADRC used to do, and it is what ADRCs is most counties still do, and perhaps it’s time for that responsibility to be shifted back to it, if transit isn’t up to that task.

There are many questions to raise in that respect, and we will, but for now the transit commission should quit interfering with the private sector, and the DOT and/or lawmakers should make sure they do. 

Perhaps the two counties could organize a Transit Summit so that the private sector, the transit commission, and the public can define their respective proper roles. After all, the transit commission’s business plan calls for partnering with the private sector. So, public summit or not, Oneida and Vilas counties should make that happen.

That means keeping public transit in the public sector, and serving those members of the public who truly need it, rather than catering to private entities.


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