A battle of the school-bus companies starts a new phase this fall as small independents battle a new contracting policy they fear will shut them out and shut them down.
Lawsuits, injunctions and other courtroom dramatics have made a bumpy ride for a provincial decision that bus routes across Ontario be awarded in bulk contracts though a tendering process.
The newest wrinkle is a court date in St. Thomas next week. That’s when a consortium that co-ordinates busing in the London area seeks to appeal an earlier court award of $190,000 to two small area operators, including Tillsonburg's F.L. Ravin Ltd., who won an injunction to halt the tendering process.
The Tillsonburg-based company runs six school routes and has a high safety and efficiency rating. But it simply can’t supply service to an entire district.
“You basically would have to bid on the whole area . . . I’m not going to service routes north of London,” said Rose Ravin, who with her husband Guy Ravin owns and operates F.L. Ravin Ltd (Ravin Coach Lines). “I’m just not equipped.”
Ravin and Badder Bus Lines successfully won an injunction putting a halt to the request-for-proposals (RFP) process in the Southwest region. The pair also was awarded $190,000 in legal costs, an amount subject of a court date next month for a possible appeal.
“We’re just a small company. We’ve been operating since 1947. We’re just trying to get through it,” she said.
“We do have concerns about the long-term safety implications,” said Karen Cameron, head of the Independent School Bus Operators Association.
Her group is lobbying to change a provincial decision that regional transportation consortiums award bus contracts only through a new request-for-proposals process.
The Southwest Ontario Student Transportation Consortium co-ordinates busing for the London District Catholic and the Thames Valley District school boards, through nine different bus companies.
But the proposed change in rules would mean only a few of those nine could even have a shot at getting a contract.
Lowest-bidder awards, Cameron said, could sink small-but-excellent companies while favouring larger companies with less experience and higher driver turnover.
Experience often correlates with safety, she insisted.
And, she said, that’s the essence of the complex and long-running dispute.
Cameron said the entire industry “has been thrown into disarray” by the process in place in a few Ontario districts, but which in many other regions is on hold at least until November, when a court challenge against the new system is heard in Perth, Ont.
“It has been a horrifically divisive issue for the bus industry,” she said. “There are people who are going to face catastrophic losses.”
Student-transportation decisions should respect the track records of existing companies; and contracts should not be subject to “a candy scramble every five years,” she said.
But the president of the Ontario School Bus Association emphatically said it’s just not accurate to suggest tendered bus mega-contracts could be less safe.
“I would challenge that,” said Perry Ferguson, whose organization represents the majority of buses on the road. Ferguson also is head of London-based Voyageur Transportation.
He said the RFP process has already shown that successful bidders must submit to rigorous audits of their operations, in addition to the existing high standards imposed by the Ontario Transportation Ministry.
When such contracts are awarded, safety records are an important part of the consideration process, he said.
He said it’s a stressful time for family operators, who might perceive that this jeopardizes their businesses.
“I understand this is a very threatening time for our industry, but it’s taxpayers that are paying for it at the end of the day. They want to make sure they get the best value for safe, efficient transportation.”
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ONTARIO SCHOOL BUSES BY THE NUMBERS
18,000: school buses
2 million: kilometres travelled each year by school buses
300 million: rides provided each year.
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Perry Ferguson, president of Ontario School Bus Association and of London-based Voyageur Transportation
“There have been injunctions and lawsuits and one thing that we all agree on is that it has to be fair.”
A fair process is one that weighs the value of each bid and chooses the best of the best, regardless of company size.
In places where RFPs have taken place, some small bus operators have lost business but so have large and mid-sized operators. “We have to have a competitive process, and with a competitive process, there are going to be winners and losers.”
Three years ago, Voyageur had 75 bus runs and now has 250 runs, and the safety procedures are more stringent now than ever. “Our focus is on making sure we get kids safely to school. . . You can’t cut corners when it comes to getting kids to school.”
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Karen Cameron, head of the Independent School Bus Operators Association
Bus contracts for the Thames Valley and London District Catholic boards are awarded in large measure where operators have proven track records -- one reason there are so many local companies, large and small.
But offering contracts only to companies wanting to provide service to an entire county or counties will close down smaller operators, some of whom have half a century or more of experience.
“Busing has never had this kind of winner-take-all attitude... This was an entirely pro-big-business process.”
She insists it will also result in higher driver turnover, lower rates, reduced driver hours and lower safety records.