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BPS poised to contract again with bus vendor, despite pattern of frequent delays

Boston Public Schools will likely work with its current school bus vendor, Transdev, for at least another five years, as the company emerged as the sole bidder for the district's next contract.

The school system and its bus service through Transdev have faced heavy criticism over frequent delays. The company's current contract with BPS began in July of 2013 and ends next summer. Low on-time arrival rates were cited in a state audit of the district this spring.

"On-time bus arrival rates remain unacceptably low and uncovered routes can affect thousands of students each month," read the report, which became the backbone for a state improvement plan targeting problem areas such as transportation. The plan, among other things, requires that at least 95% of BPS buses get to school on-time.

In late October, state education officials also began investigating whether unreliable bus service for students with certain disabilities is violating their federal rights to an education.

Boston city councilors will hold a public hearing Thursday evening to discuss the ongoing challenges within the BPS school transportation system, including rising costs and late buses.

“It is unacceptable that our students and parents are being burdened with unreliable transportation," City Councilor Julia Mejia said in a statement ahead of the hearing.

Bus companies had until late last month to place their bids, and a new contract with Transdev isn't yet official. BPS is currently in the "bid review process." But with just one vendor vying to service student transportation in Boston, changing companies likely won't be an option for Boston Public Schools. The school committee is expected to vote to approve the contract as soon as January.

Diminishing competition in the school bus industry in Massachusetts has been an increasing problem over the last decade, leaving school districts few options as they face rising bus costs and frustrated calls from parents over route delays.

According to a BPS spokesperson, the tentative new contract with Transdev includes provisions that could help improve services, including more incentives for good performance, higher reporting requirements, stronger expectations for adapting to route changes and a required higher ratio of trainers for bus drivers.

The last time BPS' bus contract went out for bid in 2013, the district got two official proposals: one from Transdev and one from First Student, the then-bus servicer for BPS. Transdev won the contract by submitting a price that was $2 million lower than the bid delivered by First Student.

First Student's tenure with Boston schools was also marked by significant bus delays. In January of 2012 the city fined the company $800,000 for chronic tardiness. The Boston Globe reported that as many as 37% of buses arrived to district schools more than an hour late that school year.

For this new round, more than 30 companies participated in a pre-bid conference call when BPS posted a request for proposals in September. Four vendors participated in a "mandatory yard walk" a few days later. But by the Oct. 28 deadline, only Transdev submitted a bid.

Transdev's bid price was nearly $17.5 million for a 5-year term with the option to extend by a year three separate times. The price does not include costs that may get passed on to the district, like driver wages.

A BPS spokesperson added that there are only a few yellow school bus vendors in the country large enough to serve a district the size of Boston's. Roughly 22,000 students use BPS buses across 221 schools.

Massachusetts' third largest school district, Worcester Public Schools, has also historically struggled with low competition for transportation contracts. After facing multiple contract rounds with a single bidder, the district decided to take bus service in house this school year.

Related:

Carrie Jung Twitter Senior Reporter, Edify
Carrie is a senior education reporter with Edify.

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