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Cost Of Busing Hartford Students Likely To Rise Sharply

By JEFFREY B. COHEN And COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writers

April 19, 2008

The cost of getting Hartford children from their homes to their classrooms is likely to increase at least 37 percent next year, with the price of fuel and labor and city requirements for onboard digital video cameras, global positioning systems, electronic routing systems, and virtually new buses all contributing to the dramatic increase, school bus companies say.

Anticipating the sharp increase, School Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski allocated a record $20 million for all forms of student transportation in his proposed budget for the 2008-09 school year, about $3 million more than current spending.

Exactly how much the city will end up paying for yellow bus service won't become known until a new five-year bus contract currently under negotiation is signed. Four bus companies have submitted bids under the latest request for proposals. School officials are expected to award contracts to two of them sometime next month. The new contract would start July 1.

The city pays for regular education bus service on a per-bus, per-day basis. The last year of its current five-year contract with First Student, formerly Laidlaw, expires June 30. The current contract charges roughly $230 a bus, per day.

Bids for the new service have come in at $315 to $422 a bus, per day. That could add between $37 million and $41 million in additional costs during the five-year contract that begins July 1.

"For what they're asking for, which was essentially new buses and the labor rate it's not an unreasonable price," said Cliff Gibson, an executive with DATTCO bus company, the apparent low bidder, according to city records. "It's just a lot more than they had before. But the contract they had before was well below the market, they were running older buses, and they had the same contractor for a number of years."

The city first sought bids for the bus service in late 2007, and estimates from M&J Bus Inc., Logisticare, Durham School Services, First Student, and DATTCO ranged from M&J Bus's low bid of $28.4 million to the high bid by First Student of $32.7 million.

Those bids were scrapped when Adamowski insisted upon bids for bus service by zone, officials said a plan that would allow him to select different bus companies to take students to school in different parts of the city. Preliminary plans call for yellow buses to run in continuous loops in each zone, with stops at each of that zone's schools where students could board.

The second time around, the bid specifications essentially called for new buses. That change, in part, drove prices up further. The city received four qualified bids this time around Durham's not among them.

Greg Walter, Durham's director of business development, said he considers his initial bid to be still active, but he's not interested in splitting the work with other companies by zone. He said the city asked him to keep his bid open until at least April 20 because it was the best one out there, and he even flew to Hartford to make a presentation to a committee overseeing the bid selection.

In a phone call with a city official, Walter was told "that the mayor really would like to go with us because we had the best bid, but the superintendent really would like to divide it by four and go by zone," he said.

A source familiar with the bidding said school officials were wary of Durham's bid because it did not include zoned pricing, nor did it anticipate cost increases in the contract over the five years.

With the July 1 start-up date drawing near, bus company officials said they need a decision so that the company or companies that get the contract can prepare.

"It's getting late," Gibson said. "This contract starts July 1 of this year, so in order to secure our vehicles and property, the city needs to move pretty quickly."

Hartford's projected increase in bus transportation costs is particularly striking, compared with neighboring West Hartford, which plans to award a contract for regular educating bus service to First Student, beginning in August.

Its current price per bus, per day is roughly $206; the price for next year will be roughly $224, an increase of 9 percent, according to a West Hartford town official.

Gibson and other bus company officials said that another reason Hartford's price is higher is because of the city's living wage ordinance, which requires a minimum hourly pay rate for workers on some city contracts. For the 2007-08 year, workers who don't receive health benefits must be paid $15.74, according to the city's website.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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