In general, it seems like it would not be fair for public agency to be competing against private business. The Federal Transit Administration, a division of the US Department of Transportation, recently set new rules to avoid such a situation from occurring. In this case, however, this may have been done without thinking through all of the consequences of their actions.

The situation is outlined in this Seattle Times article from Saturday, May 10. Briefly, under the new policy, and public transit agency such as Seattle’s Metro Transit must solicit bids from private bus-charter agencies for all sports and cultural events. Only if no one bids could the agency continue to provide the service.

This means that if the UW wants to charter buses to get fans to and from Husky Stadium for a football game, since they currently pay Metro to provide this service, Metro must look for and take bids from qualified private charter bus companies to provide the service. Here’s the rub: If any company places a bid to provide this service, then the public transit would not be able to use their own buses for the event. We are not saying “if the business provides a lower bid”, we are saying “if the business provides any bid.”

OK, so despite the fact that these transit agencies have been reliably providing the service, let’s say that it is the best public policy to offer this business to private companies. I have no real problem with that. I do have some problems with what could happen, though.

In the article, the owner of one bus company notes that the law gives her an opportunity to compete. She notes that she has lower costs, and that this savings is accomplished because she doesn’t pay union wages to her drivers. While I do not object to offering this company an opportunity to pursue this business, is it right to do so by paying the employees only half the wages they would normally deserve for driving the bus? Certainly this business owner will profit, but at a cost. The event venue will likely pay more for transportation services, the employees of the bus company will earn less than the drivers that they displaced, and taking transit vehicles out of the mix will reduce the number of vehicles available for use.

I don’t deny that there may be some advantages to allowing competition in the transportation business. But by denying event producers from having all options available to them, both public and private, we may be causing as many problems as we solve. I believe we have an inappropriate solution to a problem that may not have been much of a problem in the first place.