After sparking the ire of parents, school officials, transit agencies and members of Congress, the state's transportation agency has backed away from supporting a federal rule proposal to ban public transit trips tailored for schoolchildren.
Caltrans, citing "considerable opposition," withdrew on Thursday its June 18 comment in support of a proposal by the Federal Transit Administration to tighten its regulations intended to prevent public transit agencies receiving federal money from competing unfairly with private school bus companies.
"It was immediately brought to our attention that there are complexities and local circumstances that impact transit services, including services to school children and school personnel, which were not apparent at the time of our initial review," said a letter from Gale Ogawa, Caltrans chief of the Division of Mass Transportation submitted to the federal agency's official docket.
The discovery of the proposed rule, followed by the state's generic support of it, angered a host of school and public transit advocates across the nation, but a disproportionate share of the opposing comments to the FTA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, came from East Bay officials, parents and concerned citizens.
"We're thrilled with Caltrans' latest decision," said Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland school district. "They've traditionally been very supportive of the Oakland Unified School District, and we're glad to see they're continuing in that vein by ensuring access to all schools for Oakland students."
Flint also gave credit to "Oakland's public, for being engaged in this issue and making their voices heard in Washington about how dangerous this proposal is for urban areas across the country."
Jim Gleich, deputy general manager for AC Transit, was also pleased that Caltrans realized that its initial comment in support "wasn't reflective of California's needs."
"The important thing that happened there was that we opened up lines of communication with Caltrans and transit operators," Gleich said.
The proposal, which FTA officials still plan to draft as a formal rule change in November, has prompted opposition from places as bustling as New York City and Philadelphia — where Republican U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter warned the rule could stop school transportation — and as remote as Minot, N.D.
But the plight of thousands of youthful AC Transit riders, who ride specially designated buses to school, sparked a large part of the opposition. Parents and officials from Fremont joined opponents in Oakland in a campaign to stop the federal proposal.
Discovering that their own state government supported it created another source of concern that prompted Caltrans' reversal in the wake of articles in this newspaper and letters explaining the issue from the state's transit and education officials.
Gale expressed dismay that the issue surfaced in the media before she had a chance to hear about it from the aggrieved parties.
"This week we reached out to and spoke to AC Transit, AC Transit Board and representatives for the Oakland School District. We listened to their concerns and let them know we were reconsidering our position," she wrote in an e-mail to the California Association for Coordinated Transportation, which represents AC Transit as well as many smaller transit agencies.
Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said that after withdrawing its support, the agency will take a closer look at the regulatory proposal.
Rick Ramacier, general manager of the Contra Costa Transit Authority and legislative chairman of CalACT, said it was encouraging that Caltrans had listened to transit agencies.
He said, "I don't think they really realized what the rule meant when they commented, and I think they do now."
Reach Erik N. Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-208-6410.