So did anyone else see the irony in Thursday’s Star Tribune story about long lines and back-ups for the Minnesota State Fair’s newly privatized shuttle bus service? At a time when anti-big government rhetoric is running sky high over proposed health care reforms and industry bail-outs, here’s one limited case suggesting that private industry doesn't always have an edge over a government-run counterpart.
Because of a revised federal rule, Metro Transit can no longer contract to run the main shuttle bus service taking fairgoers from close-in park-n-rides to the State Fair — if private bus companies want to provide it. The intent is not to allow unfair competition for contracts between public agencies and private companies.
In years past, both Metro Transit and private bus companies have typically provided this service. This year, Metro Transit is playing a much smaller role, going from serving about a half million riders to only running bus service from some further-out lots. According to reporter Jim Foti, the change and record-setting attendance on some days has led to hassles for fairgoers. Some people waited an hour or more to catch a shuttle, which are provided for free and paid for by the fair.
It’s understandable that there’s going to be a learning curve for private companies taking on an expanded role. At the same time, Metro Transit’s long expertise in providing the service, as well as its articulated buses designed to maximize the number of riders on one trip, is a loss. So is its ability to summon back-up drivers or additional buses if many fairgoers want to leave at once, as they did on Saturday when a storm threatened.
One StarTribune.com commenter on Foti’s story summed up the situation intelligently: "The protectionist rationale for the non-competition rule is understandable, but it doesn’t seem to be flexible enough for situations that are fundamentally about public transit rather than private charters. In my experience, trying to get to the fair from the U of M lot on the 29th, there was no signage, no guidance, and no efficiency—all things that public transit (should) be good at. We all like to gripe about relying on public institutions for everything, but in some cases, they’re really the best choice for the job."
The State Fair bus situation likely won’t ease many minds about big government’s role in health care and other areas. Nor should it. Caution is always warranted about any expanded role for government. Still, the State Fair shuttle bus situation does provide some welcome, real-life food for thought to a season of town halls dominated by anti-government fears.