Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bring Back the Yellow Bus!

Unsupervised kids make dumb decisions. This is not a surprise. When hundreds of unsupervised kids crowd together, they have the potential to make a lot of dumb decisions. This is the case with teens all over the world. They're easily influenced, they're emotional, they're confused; in other words, teens should not go unsupervised. Especially on school days. But that has been the case for the past twelve years for hundreds, if not thousands, of Rochester City School students on a daily basis.

The City School District contracts with the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority through its Regional Transit Service subsidiary to provide transportation to and from school for large numbers of students throughout the City of Rochester. The District purchases bus passes for its students to use on any RTS bus at any time of day, although the passes are intended to be used only for accessing their respective school. Most of these students must come to Main Street in Downtown Rochester every day to transfer buses. This is where the trouble comes in.

For one thing, this is a recipe for truancy. Think of the temptations these kids must face every day not only on the bus, but while waiting for the bus in the middle of downtown. It is a miracle that most of them actually make it to school. Given all of the challenges that kids being brought up in tough inner city neighborhoods face, why are we making it even more difficult for them by forcing them to deal with our ineffective public transportation system? The answer, of course, is to save money; which is apparently much more important than anything else.

The bigger issue though, as I alluded to earlier, is piling many hundreds of teens from all over the city onto the sidewalks of Main Street. This is a recipe for delinquency. WHAM-TV called it "chaos," WROC-TV said it was a "brawl," and RNEWS described it as a "melee." "It" was the most recent instance of students fighting on Main Street in broad daylight while waiting to make their transfers. Disturbances such as this happen more often than the District, the Police, or RGRTA would like to admit. The fights, drug use, and other disturbances that are cultivated by cramming so many kids from all over the city into one downtown block have destroyed any hopes of a "renaissance" at Main & Clinton. Most businesses within earshot of the Liberty Pole have packed up and left, those that remain are struggling; the current situation is the main reason why so many downtown workers feel unsafe (real or perceived).

Can you remember what Downtown Rochester was like in 1994, the year before this program began? Although it was the year that McCurdy's and B. Forman closed their anchor department stores at Midtown Plaza, the Main & Clinton area was still full of smaller shops catering to workers and city residents. The Sibley Building had been renovated by Wilmorite and was home to an active retail environment with national chains such as Champs Sports and Lerner New York fronting Liberty Pole Plaza. Twelve years later and Midtown is hanging on by a thread. It is still home to a number of stores but few area residents think of it as a viable place to shop. The Sibley Building is nearly empty, with artwork filling the windows that face out on Liberty Pole Plaza. There is no doubt that the ill-conceived school transportation program either hastened the decline of Main & Clinton, or was the last nail in its coffin.

A City School education was also much different in 1994 than today. The schools were more diverse, they were less impoverished, and the kids were performing better. While we don't know to what extent this transportation program has contributed to truancy and delinquency, logic indicates that forcing impressionable youth to ride city buses with adults every morning and transfer in the middle of a busy downtown area with thousands of complete strangers is liable to tempt even the strongest of young minds to forget about school. Suburban kids with their big yellow buses aren't forced to do this, why should our kids?

Then there is the legal issue. Laidlaw Transportation Services, the folks that run the big yellow buses, have been suing RGRTA for years claiming unfair competition. Their argument is that RGRTA is heavily subsidized by State and Federal transit funds and therefore should not be allowed to compete with the private sector for service provision contracts. It stands to reason that there is absolutely no way any private firm could match what RGRTA charges for their services. This past January, FTA sided with Laidlaw and issued a "cease and desist" order against RGRTA. It remains to be seen what will come of this order; it is currently being appealed. If all goes well, the yellow buses of Laidlaw will replace the red, white, and blue ones of RTS next school year.

Furthermore, if we want to ensure the success of Renaissance Square, the largest construction project in our city's history, we cannot allow this transportation program to continue. Even if a police substation is built into Renaissance Square, and I surely hope one is, the few officers assigned to it would be hard-pressed to control a disturbance involving hundreds of kids in such tight confined quarters. I continue to fully support Renaissance Square and think it will have a profoundly positive impact on the attractiveness of our Center City. However, this program has the unique potential to render that impact dead on arrival before the ground is even broken.

Although this service is saving the District millions of dollars annually, it remains a losing deal for nearly everyone involved. The City is losing substantial amounts of property tax dollars at the Sibley Building (thanks Wilmorite!) and sales tax receipts throughout the Main & Clinton area. The kids who are forced to use this service are losing out by not being given a worry-free trip to school and back. The people of Rochester are losing out on what has the potential to be a thriving urban core. All of these issues have the potential to be at least partially addressed by stopping this program. We cannot afford any more ironic "chaos," "brawls," or "melees" at our Liberty Pole.