(The Bay Area -- KALW) As cities across the country face steep budget cuts, many local governments are looking at their transportation departments and wondering if someone else could do the same job for less money.
That’s exactly what Fairfield, California thought. The small city (about 100,000 residents) contracted MV Transportation to run the bus system for the Fairfield and Suisun Transit organization, or FAST, hoping the company would bring a regular bus service to its suburban population.
But the reality was less than perfect, and it could serve as a cautionary tale to cities considering a private company for their public transit.
Zusha Ellison, a reporter for the Bay Citizen, uncovered a whole mess of problems with MV Transportation, from chronically late buses to city council members forgiving some of the $164,000 in fines that the company had racked up.
Ellison talked to George Fink, the former head of FAST, who spent his time trying to reign in MV Transportation. But the transit company was well-connected in the local government, which made it difficult for FAST to police the company. Fink remembers getting calls from his boss after criticizing MV Transportation, telling him to back off.
There have been other cases where private operators have taken over public bus systems with mixed results. When Nassau County, New York shifted it's bus system to a private operator, service was reduced on 60 percent of the routes in an effort to limit losses*. North of New York City, a Poconos bus operator filled a gap when transit cuts reduced public bus service, but the fleet used was shabbier and drew regulatory scrutiny. And a private eco-friendly operator in Detroit launched with some fanfare last year, only to shift business models for lack of customer demand.
The Farfield California is one example--a stark and cautionary example--of what can happen when local transit is turned over to private ownership, according to the Bay Citizen report.
* Ruth Ott of Veolio Transportation, the company that runs NICE Bus, wrote to contest our assessment of service cuts that we first reported the cuts a year ago. She writes:
We have improved both service quality and operational performance ... Customer satisfaction and customer perception of punctuality, vehicle reliability, bus cleanliness, quality of passenger information, operator courtesy have all increased significantly, by 50% to 60%, as measured by independent market research surveys.
We have made the best use of the available budget for transit service. The available dollars in 2012 were actually $35 million less than the $156 million that had been estimated by the MTA [ed note: the previous operator].