Petrolia Councilors want to make sure independent bus operators are around for a long-time to come.
The provincial government has been telling school boards to end the practice of hiring different bus companies to pick up students in small geographic areas. It wants regional contract, saying it will be more cost efficient.
Some school boards in Eastern Ontario have already moved to regional contracts, but there are problems. Large multi-national companies have undercut local operators to win the contracts according to Steve Hull, the owner of Hull Buslines in Petrolia and the president of the Independent School Bus Operators Association.
Hull says the big companies bid below the cost of running the service, squeezing out the smaller operators. Now, in the Ottawa area, one of the large operators is jacking up prices to the school board. Hull says the board has no alternative, because the independent operators were driven out of business.
The school boards in Lambton County haven’t begun asking for regional contracts yet. Hull says they are waiting for the outcome of a court case by the independent operators in the Ottawa area before going ahead.
But Hull is concerned if the local boards do move to regional contracts; the local operators here will also be squeezed out. “We only have one customer and we exist for and because of school boards,” he says. “If I over bid by one dollar, I could be out of business and when the contracts come around again, there won’t be any one around but the large companies anymore.
“There won’t be anyone to compete with.”
So Hull asked town council to express its concern with the idea to the provincial government – something it has done before.
Mayor John McCharles says the local buslines provide good service to the communities and he wants to see them thrive. He says in the long run, that will save taxpayers money. “If the little guy is out of business, this large companies have a monopoly and will jack up the prices,” he says adding regional contracts would only produce “short-term savings.”
Councilor Mary Pat Gleeson who brought up the matter at council, believes smaller companies are also more safety conscious. “When it comes to health and safety, a local company is going to take care of local people,” she says. “As soon as you get a large corporation, most of the decisions are made in the big cities.”