Cowlitz Coach of Washington to appeal ruling to Federal Transportation AdministrationState transportation officials have cleared Sunset Empire Transportation District (SETD) of wrongdoing for offering bus service to the Crab and Seafood Festival.

In a ruling released earlier this month, the Oregon Department of Transportation's Public Transit Division said the local transit agency did not violate federal rules by serving the festival, or by providing bus service to cruise ship passengers or through the new Fort Clatsop Explorer Shuttle.

The division also ruled that the Astoria School District, which was targeted in the complaint as well, was not in violation for providing school buses for both the seafood festival and cruise ship service.

ODOT investigated the local transit agency following a complaint from the owner of Cowlitz Coach, a private charter bus company in Castle Rock, Wash., who argued that Sunset Empire was unfairly taking away potential business from his company and other carriers.

The owner, Mark Obtinario, has appealed the ruling to the Federal Transportation Administration.

In a preliminary finding last June, ODOT's Motor Carrier Transportation Division said SETD appeared to be in violation of rules barring federally funded transit agencies from providing charter bus service in competition with private providers, and recommended that a cease-and-desist order be issued against the district.

But in a follow-up investigation, the public transit division ruled that the district was not in violation of federal rules because none of the buses it used during the festival was paid for with restricted federal funds.

The division also confirmed the findings of the June report that found no violations on SETD's part in providing service to cruise ship passengers last May. It also ruled that the Lewis and Clark Explorer Shuttle, which provided bus service to and from Fort Clatsop National Memorial, did not constitute a charter service.

But whether or not Sunset Empire violated the rules, ODOT investigators ruled that the Cowlitz Coach owner had no standing to make the complaints because the company is not certified to offer charter service that begins and ends inside Oregon - and therefore can't legally compete for the Seafood Festival business and other services included in the complaint.

SETD Director Cindy Howe said she was confident that the ruling would be in the district's favor, but said she welcomed the investigation and decision as helping clarify the murky rules governing public transit agencies and charter bus service. "There has always been some question about what constitutes a charter - the law is difficult to read," she said. "I consider this a positive thing."

Sunset Empire has six buses that were purchased with federal transportation funds, but the district made sure that none was used for the festival or cruise ship trips, Howe said.

Public Transit Division Administrator Martin Loring said the investigation was one of the first the agency has conducted around the charter service issue.

"In the real world we try to make it clear what is a charter service and what isn't, but there is a bunch of stuff in the middle that depends on how you look at it," he said.

To fully comply with the rules, Sunset Empire learned it needs to announce its service for cruise ships and special events in the same way it publishes its regular service schedule, Howe said. It also must charge individual fares for riders.

The district's involvement in this year's seafood festival was limited to helping coordinate the shuttle service and providing some service to and from local hotels and campgrounds, Howe said.


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