Private bus companies have filed a complaint with federal regulators, saying the Charlotte Area Transit System wants to provide charters for the Democratic National Convention that the private firms should supply.
The American Bus Association filed a complaint this week asking the U.S. Federal Transit Administration to deny a waiver CATS needs in order to use its own buses to transport people with disabilities and other accessibility issues.
CATS needs a waiver because federal law prevents public-transit agencies from competing with private bus operators for charter business. City officials say waivers are only granted if private charter services can’t handle the business.
The Charlotte City Council last month voted to use “retired” CATS buses during the DNC for delegates who use wheelchairs. Convention organizers would pay the city $189,000 for these buses, which are not in daily use.
In an Aug. 7 letter to FTA administrator Peter Rogoff, Assistant City Attorney Lisa Flowers said CATS needs the exemption so it can accommodate approximately 300 delegates staying in approximately 56 hotels in the Charlotte area.
Flowers also wrote that the DNCC’s transportation management team “has requested CATS’ assistance in providing low-floor model vehicles equipped with a wheelchair ramp or ramps for assistance in transporting all delegates but especially those delegates who require wheelchair-accessible transportation.”
The bus association says city officials didn’t try hard enough to find privately operated motorcoaches.
“We could be talking potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars” for charter operators, said Dan Ronan, spokesman for the bus association.
Association members within a five-hour drive of Charlotte have 138 wheelchair lift-equipped private buses, Ronan added.
“In an area that is as motor-coach heavy as the Carolinas are, it’s hard to understand how CATS says it can’t find enough motorcoaches to do the job,” Ronan said.
Jean Leier, a CATS spokesperson, said in an email that the transit system is “taking the necessary actions to be in a position to provide vehicles if the private operators are unable to satisfy the need.”
A spokeswoman for the Democratic National Convention Committee said the group had to contract with the city for buses “with increased accessibility.”
“The DNCC has contracted more than 450 private motor coach buses from the region,” DNCC spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in an e-mailed statement. “However, we have exhausted the supply of buses that meet our accessibility needs for individuals with disabilities.
“In order to service guests with accessibility issues, as has been done in past conventions, we must contract with the city for buses with increased accessibility.”
The bus service for people with disabilities is a small portion of the DNC’s total transportation needs. The DNC has a $3 million contract with three private charter firms that bid as a team to transport thousands of delegates and VIPs between their hotels and main venues.
Those firms are Birmingham, Ala.-based Vectour Group, Seattle-based Event Transportation Associates, and Charlotte Destination Group. That team came through with enough buses, all of which have wheelchair lifts and low-floor ramps for easier accessibility, Peters has said.
Peters also said the majority of the credentialed guests in the 15,000 hotel rooms in Charlotte would be using the 450 private motorcoaches. Dave Longo, a spokesman for the FTA, said in an email to the Observer Friday that “the CATS charter bus waiver request is under review …. and we do not currently have a timeframe for a decision.”
At least one local private bus operator is happy he has DNC-related contracts.
Bejay Barber, owner of the Charlotte-based Roadway Tours, and member of the American Bus Association, said his motorcoach company will be transporting visitors from Democratic think-tanks and progressive organizations, but not delegates.
Three Roadway Tours buses will be transporting around 700 people, Barber said. Roadway Tours’ four contracts would generate approximately $15,000 during the DNC, Barber said.