Transit Proposal Could Cut Costs in Augusta

May 04--Augusta could run its public transit system for $400,000 a year less if it hires a private company to operate it, according to a bid proposal.

Commissioners have said they want to privatize the bus system to improve service, which has been criticized by riders as inadequate.

A selection committee last month recommended Mobility Transit Services LLC, of Knoxville, Tenn., to become Augusta's transit operator and the company's proposal is now before the public service committee. If approved, only system operations would become private. Buses and buildings would still belong to the city and commission approval would be needed for any changes to routes, fares and bus stops.

Commissioner Joe Bowles in January said improving service was his reason for privatizing.

"I'm not looking for a cost reduction so much as a more effective system overall. Improvements to efficiency of operations would, in turn, perhaps allow us to add routes to the system," he said.

But it appears a cost reduction is the only benefit on the table so far.

"They aren't making any changes other than how they maintain and work on the buses," Bowles said by phone Tuesday. "I think (the $400,000) shows that we've obviously not been properly organized over the last few years, when someone can come in and save us this much in maintenance costs."

The bid includes putting cameras on buses, which would help evaluate any complaints against bus drivers, Bowles said. But it does not include posting schedules and route maps at bus stops and stations. That's something both riders and commissioners have said ought to be done.

"I think in the future we will see more savings than that $400,000," he said. "I don't think (adding routes) is going to happen now, but I do think you could see some different routes that better serve the public."

A grassroots group, the Bus Riders Association, has told commissioners riders need more routes and more frequent runs of existing routes if they're to depend on Augusta buses for transportation to jobs and appointments.

In March, Commissioner Bill Lockett told bus riders he knew the system was "terrible" and he and Commissioner Corey Johnson said they would like to improve Augusta's bus service, but there was no money to do so.

At that time, both commissioners said they believed a private system could at least professionalize service.

"The bids are in for a private business to operate the system and I think a lot of what's being proposed (by the bus riders) will be addressed by that," Lockett said then.

"If it becomes privatized ... (those companies) operate a tight ship," Johnson had said. "So a lot of these issues you see here, you won't see with that."

Lockett did not return calls Tuesday asking what he thought about the bid proposal.

Johnson, who leads the public services committee and is still reviewing the proposal, now says he doesn't think privatizing will be a better solution. The same improvements ought to be made to Augusta's public system instead, he said.

"I'm trying to wrap my arms around why we can't already do exactly what these folks are going to do," he said.

Asked whether $400,000 a year was an opportunity to expand service, Johnson said he didn't believe the city would save that money.

"That's incorrect," he said. "They'll put a base fee in there for (providing service) but they're not calculating all these other things into play, that will impact the amount overall that they will be receiving."

The city's bid request says "payment (to the contractor) shall be made on the basis of vehicle revenue hours."

Johnson said he's still organizing information that would show the city wouldn't save money on the private operator.

The Public Services Committee will meet in a special work session at 10 a.m. Thursday at the commission chamber to discuss Mobility's bid.

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