McDonald Transit Associates of Fort Worth, Texas; Veolia Transportation of Lombard, Ill.; MV Transit of Fairfield, Calif.; and Mobility of Knoxville, Tenn., submitted qualified bids by Friday's deadline.
Augusta is seeking a private bus system manager/operator to improve efficiency.
Bus riders have complained Augusta's system needs more routes and more frequent runs. City officials, fighting a $9 million budget deficit, have said there's no money to expand bus service. Last year, the city spent $5 million to operate Augusta Public Transit.
Efficiency is what a private vendor can bring to public transit, said Valerie Michael, Veolia's corporate communications director.
"In some cases, we are even able to provide more services, because we operate in a more cost-effective mode," she said. "We also value safety, and one of the first things we do is take steps toward making the transit system safer."
Veolia manages Savannah's transit system. The company operates internationally and is the largest provider of multiple forms of private transit in North America.
Robert Babbitt, the president of McDonald Transit, said figures from the National Transit Database showed privately run bus systems cost an average of $30 less per bus route-hour in 2007.
"It's not because the drivers or the mechanics are paid a significantly different wage," Babbitt said. "It's really just a hundred little things. The devil is in the details of execution."
Babbitt's employees worry about fuel economy to the tenth-mile and know the riders on each route to within 10 people, he said. Employees have a broader range of experience, and the company can negotiate for the best deals on insurance and retirement benefits.
McDonald operates 34 transit systems in the U.S., including the ones in Hall County, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C. It's the country's fourth-largest transit company.
W.C. Pihl, the senior vice president of business development for MV Transit, said a nationwide company that runs many transit systems can staff more efficiently.
"We are able to run a bit leaner than most cities can," he said. "We can centralize employees in corporate offices and use them for multiple locations."
Private companies, because of their size, also have more buying power for things such as uniforms, mechanical parts, and drug and alcohol testing services, Pihl said. Additionally, they can bring in technology that lowers costs.
MV Transit manages the transit system in Albany, Ga., and operates in 24 states, Pihl said. It is the largest American-owned private transit company and the largest provider of para-transit services in North America, he said.
According to the bid request, Augusta will remain in charge of planning bus routes, fares, schedules, hours of operation and bus stop locations.
In addition, the city will retain ownership of the system's buses, buildings and other physical property.