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Metro to end transportation agreement with Cincinnati Public Schools in 2022

metro buses
Michael E. Keating/WVXU

Letters from the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority addressed to Cincinnati Public Schools officials indicate that Metro will not work with the school district after June 30, 2022.

An official written notice to not exercise "contract option years" was delivered to CPS' Interim Director of Pupil Transportation Leniese Fuqua on Nov. 17.

In a letter to Interim Superintendent Tianay Amat, SORTA CEO and General Manager Darryl Haley states that Metro "will not exercise our contract option years following the conclusion of our current contract on June 30, 2022." It also says CPS has "solicited bids" from transportation service providers – including Metro – for chartered bus service.

"While your request for bid does not immediately preclude a future agreement between Metro and CPS, it causes us to believe the district’s transportation needs have extended beyond what Metro – as a federally funded transportation agency – is legally authorized to provide," Haley said in the letter. "It is with this realization that we determined it best to submit written notice (sent Nov. 17) that we will not exercise our contract option years following the conclusion of our current contract on June 30, 2022."

In the official notice given on the 17th, SORTA COO John Ravasio said federal law prohibits SORTA from competing with private charter operators, which led to SORTA not submitting a bid to provide services to CPS. Metro's Vice President of External Affairs Brandy Jones says it would violate a federal regulation that prevents agencies receiving federal subsidies from unfairly competing against private bus companies.

"If we were to bid on this, we would lose the money that we receive from the federal government, and we rely on federal funds to purchase new buses, to build things like transit centers and ultimately do all of the things that a system would do to provide service to all our residents in Hamilton County, and so what CPS is asking us to do is illegal," Jones tells WVXU.

In an email, the school district's Chief Communications and Engagement Officer Krista Boyle says CPS is following the normal process to field a request for proposal for yellow bus providers.

"The procurement system simply alerted all transportation vendors that the RFP was open," Boyle said. "We are clear that Metro is unable to bid and never intended that it would be within the scope of the services they provide for CPS."

Jones says Metro is committed to continuing conversations with CPS and look at future options, including XTRA service routes if the driver shortage subsides. However, there are concerns this could affect federal funding after the school district's RFPs.

"That could put our funding in jeopardy, and that is something that we are absolutely not willing to do because that would harm tens of thousands of individuals in our county who depend on us to get to not only school in different districts, but to work, to doctor appointments and so forth," Jones said.

Bus pass problems

During a Committee of the Whole meeting earlier this month, CPS revealed that it asked SORTA to deactivate 7,760 unused bus passes - 6,500 for CPS students and 1,260 for non-public school students. The district also requested roughly $2.4 million in credit for the unused passes.

Metro says it fulfilled CPS’ initial order request of 14,416 passes for $4.5 million. The school district then requested an additional 1,217 passes, bringing the total contract cost to $4.8 million. Metro says student ridership on Metro has returned to pre-pandemic numbers with roughly 9,000 student trips taken each school day.

The letter states CPS has requested a cost adjustment for 7,772 unused passes, but have only returned 2,920, which would have only resulted in a $919,800 adjustment to the total contract cost.

Metro also states that 673 more passes have been used since CPS’ initial request, but they will keep those passes active to prevent disrupting the students' school trips. Haley also says SORTA will provide $2.2 million to the school district. A typo in an earlier version of the letter originally stated SORTA would provide the requested $2.4 million.

"It is our hope that, by crediting CPS’ account the fully requested $2.2 million and by providing plenty of notice of our intention not to extend our contract, we can provide CPS with sufficient funding and time to continue seeking and cover the expense of a private service provider and to begin communicating this change with CPS student families well ahead of the start of the next school year," Haley said.

SORTA ended student Metro bus routes right as school was about to begin. SORTA says due to the driver shortage the decision was necessary to avoid delaying or reducing services under the Reinventing Metro plan. CPS says the changes affect 6,000 students. However, SORTA says roughly 4,000 were already commuting to school using regular Metro routes.

This story may be updated.

Cory Sharber attended Murray State University majoring in journalism and political science and comes to Cincinnati Public Radio from NPR Member station WKMS.