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Rural bus operators consider suing state

Anne Knowles

As legislators meet this week to discuss ways to improve the state’s mass transit system, bus operators that once provided service to rural northwest Nevada are considering suing the state for non-payment of services.

The four operators contend that they have not been paid by the Nevada Department of Transportation for bus service they provided during the summer of 2002.

As a result, they say, bus service in Carson City, Fallon, Gardnerville, Dayton, Yerington, Silver Spring and Fernley has been shut down for good.

“They are owed around $500,000 to $600,000,” said Chris Buchanan, former executive director of the North West Nevada Regional Transit Coalition, a non-profit set up to contract with the operators and pay them with federal money supplied by NDOT.

The four operators each have hired attorneys who are meeting this week in an effort to settle the case with NDOT hopefully, they say, before it reaches a courtroom.

At least one operator – CoachUSA All West – said it has already met with NDOT’s Assistant Director Kent Cooper several times and another operator – Lyon County Transit – has contacted NDOT and received word from one of its lawyer that the department is reviewing the case.

(NDOT did not return calls for comment by press time.) “We’re exploring our options now,” said attorney Paul Taggart with King & Taggart in Carson City who is representing Lyon County Transit.

“We have tried to have meetings with (NDOT) and we got a letter from the NDOT lawyer in October saying he was looking it over.” “The state acknowledges that we provided a service they asked us to,” said Bill Gibson, with All West, now owned by CUSA in Reno, and former chair of the coalition.

“But we had no contract and that’s the sticking point.”

According to the operators, they had contracts with NDOT, through the coalition, that ran through June 2002.

According to the minutes of the coalition’s June 21, 2002, public meeting, Sandi Stanio, then statewide transit planner for NDOT, said the department would honor the contracts through September.

At the coalition’s Oct.

17, 2002 meeting, according to the minutes, she said money for the service was available and she would expedite payment for the operator’s services.

The operators say they agreed in good faith to continue service, for which they have never been paid.

Technically, the operators’ contracts were with the coalition and not NDOT, which supplied the funds to the coalition.

“The state will contend that the operators can’t sue because our contracts are with the coalition,” said Gibson.

“They’ve already said that to us.”

But the coalition no longer exists, says Gibson, and has no right to sue because it received funding from the state.

“So the operators that provided the service are stepping in and taking the role of the coalition to sue the state,” he said.

The four operators are CoachUSA All West, which provided service from Fallon to Carson City and from Fallon to Fernley; Lyon County Transit, now defunct, which provided feeder service for residents of Yerington, Silver Spring and Dayton to catch the All West bus between Fallon and Carson City; Ormsby Association for Retarded Citizens, which provided a connector service that met buses arriving in Carson City and delivered passengers to their workplaces; and Para Transit Service, a Seattle-based provider that ran a route between Gardnerville and Carson City.

Meanwhile, a legislative commission chaired by Sen.

Joseph Neal (D-Clark County) that is studying the state’s longterm mass transit needs is holding its second meeting this week.

At its first meeting, held in December, Neal made it clear he was concerned about providing reliable service to the state’s rural areas in order to help revitalize struggling counties.

“We’re trying to get at what can be done to save dying corridors,” said Neal.

“We could open up these areas to development and new businesses and spread out the population of Las Vegas and Reno.” It became clear, however, that the state is hamstrung because funds from the gas tax can only be used for roads and not for operation of transit systems.

All other money comes from the federal government, which often requires matching funds that the counties are hard pressed to come up with.

At this week’s meeting of the commission, Brenda Erdoes, the legislative counsel, is scheduled to testify on the on the constitutional provision regarding use of the state’s fuel tax.

“How do we get rural transit going in Nevada and how do we sustain it?” said the coalition’s Buchanan.

“What are we doing legislatively to change that?” He said the case between NDOT and the rural operators is indicative of a bigger problem.

“It is a symptom of the state not providing money.”

“The saddest thing about all this is that the service has been undercut,” said Lyon County Transit’s lawyer Taggart.

“It’s a tremendous service and the only way for a lot of people to get around.”