When the Wisconsin Department of Transportation gave the Northwoods Transit Commission its blessing for a pilot program to give the LUHS Nordic ski team daily transportation to and from Winter Park and the high school in 2017, there was an important caveat.
Because the transit system is heavily subsidized with tax dollars, it could not give the ski team exclusive use, but would have to establish the service as a regular route that would be advertised and available for the public to use as well.
So just how much did the public avail itself of the service? The answer is, not at all.
According to numbers provided to The Lakeland Times by the transit commission, between Nov. 27, 2017, and March 1, 2018, the transit commission gave members of the ski team a total of 1,271 one-way rides.
The number of rides taken by the general public: Zero.
Technically, the transit commission followed the DOT's requirements. It advertised the rides to the general public, but apparently only on its website.
A screenshot of the website ad provided by the transit commission did not include times, days, or pick-up locations, but did say the public could call the transit office for details.
"Minocqua ski schedule," the website stated under Regular Inter-City Routes. "To Minocqua Winter Park or Schlecht Lake depending on snow. Multiple pick up locations. Call our office at 715-420-0585 for details."
In providing the ridership numbers to The Times, transit commission manager Roger Youngren said some members of the public did make calls asking about the route.
"We do not believe we provided any rides to the ski area to the general public although we did have a few inquiries," Youngren told The Times.
He also stressed the bus did not sit idly by after taking the ski team to Winter Park or Schlecht Lake.
"You may recall we had to extend our operating hours in the Lakeland area until 6 p.m. to allow for the Nordic pick up," he wrote in an email to The Times. "During the time between the drop off and pick up, our driver would continue on-demand service to the general public. Since we only track rides by day and not by the hour, we do not have information on how many rides were served during this period."
The possibility of the transit commission providing exclusive bus service for the ski team had already drawn criticism from privately owned StarGazer Limousine & Ride Service before the transit commission secured the DOT's blessing for its pilot program.
By federal rule, publicly subsidized services such as the transit commission are required to notify private-sector entities of the transit commission's interest in providing a specific charter service and give those companies an opportunity to provide the service instead.
According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), once an eligible private entity is notified by the transit commission and the private company expresses an interest in providing the service, the public transit system is prohibited from providing the service.
In this instance, some time in the spring or summer of 2017, the ski team and the transit commission began talking about a charter service to transport the team to and from ski practice Monday through Friday with pick up every day at 3:30 p.m. from LUHS and return between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to the school parking lot.
However, no formal contract was negotiated until much later, in October, and the transit commission did not notify private businesses of the plan until that time.
When StarGazer expressed an interest, the DOT informed the transit commission it could not provide the service.
The problem was, StarGazer could not compete with the heavily subsidized transit commission's offer to provide the service for $1,170 a month, a fact the DOT's Stephen Hirshfeld acknowledged in his email informing the transit commission it could not do the service.
"The charter rules have some gray areas, but basically they bend over backwards to make sure private companies aren't damaged by public transit, since - as Richard and Carrie (Linzmeier, the owners of StarGazer) seem to realize - it's not a level playing field," Hirshfeld wrote.
Then transit commission manager Jim Altenburg replied: "Ok Steve our poor people will always suffer for this but we will say no."
The incident raised a number of questions. For one thing, the Linzmeiers say they were made to look like the "bad guys" simply because they could not compete with a government-subsidized entity. For another, Carrie Linzmeier contested the idea that members of the ski team were "poor people," as Altenburg suggested.
There was also the issue of whether the transit commission should have notified private companies after the very first discussion with the ski team, either in the spring or summer.
The FTA rules require prompt notification of such entities after a public transit system is approached about providing charter service.
"The Charter Service Rule requires you to send the notification the day that you receive the charter service request, or by the following business day, if you receive the request after 2 p.m.," the FTA summary of the rule states. "We recognize that this is not always possible, particularly given that we ask our subrecipients to consult with WisDOT upon receiving a charter service request. Regardless, you should treat these requests as though time is of the essence."
According to Carrie Linzmeier, she said she was told by a ski team official the club had reached an informal agreement with the transit commission in May or June of 2017; however, Altenburg, in an Oct. 31, 2017, email, characterized it as much more informal.
"This Lakeland Ski Team was originally talked about in passing this summer as a thought but didn't come to light till recently," he wrote.
Either way, sometime after the October 2017 email in which Altenburg said the commission would say no, the DOT allowed the commission to provide the service.
At the commission board's Nov. 13, 2017, meeting, transit commission chairman Erv Teichmiller - whose granddaughter was on the ski team - announced that the DOT had given the commission the green light to do the service after all.
"Board chair said that we'll be able to do the pilot project in Minocqua with WisDOT blessing," the minutes state. "It will be run five days a week during our normal hours to Schlecht Lake and Winter Park. Program review at the end of February. The ski club is a nonprofit organization. WisDOT requires notification to other providers. StarGazer stated they agreed to provide the services, but can't compete with our cost."
The secret to getting permission was to allow members of the general public to avail themselves of the set routes back and forth to the high school.
"The pilot program was open to all residents of the area who wanted to access the ski hill, as opposed to a specialized trip just for the Nordic Ski team," Chad Reuter, a DOT transit section lead worker, told The Times. "Public transit systems are allowed to add routes to their service area that terminate at businesses if they advertise the route as being for the general public and also have pick-up spots in at least one public place."
At the time, when he notified the Linzmeiers of the pilot program, Altenburg said the idea had not come from him, though he backed it.
"This is not my doing and came from over my head but agree with it," he wrote to Richard Linzmeier on Nov. 13, 2017.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce