In December, the city sent out a bid request that seeks a company to run Augusta Public Transit. Commissioner Joe Bowles said the goal is to get the most benefit from available transit funds.
"I'm not looking for a cost reduction so much as a more effective system overall," he said. "Improvements to efficiency of operations would, in turn, perhaps allow us to add routes to the system."
Bowles said in past years bus riders have complained about routes that don't run on time, poor treatment of riders by some bus drivers, and a lack of available route maps.
"This is a way we can possibly make the riders happy," he said.
Only the operation of the bus system would be privatized, not the transit system as a whole.
According to the bid request, Augusta would still be in charge of planning bus routes, fares, schedules, hours of operation and location of bus stops, though the contractor is expected to make recommendations on these. The selected company would not own the buses, buildings or other physical property.
The contractor would take over day-to-day management, make sure buses run on time, maintain vehicles and bus shelters, and hire and supervise all transit system employees.
Bus fares collected by the contractor would belong to the city. The city would pay the contractor on a per-hour basis for every bus route operated.
Bowles said the idea is similar to the privatized management of the Bell Auditorium. He also mentioned that Savannah uses a private company to manage its transit system.
In fact, a private company has managed Savannah's bus system for about 20 years, said Chatham County Commissioner Patrick Shay. The advantage of a private-public partnership is efficiency, he said.
"The problem with a public-owned model is before long, it becomes very parochial," he said. "The private sector is able to attract talent from a broad universe of managers and able to negotiate with unions for greater efficiencies in purchasing."
Until recently, Savannah outsourced only its bus system administration. In 2010, it contracted with a different company which now manages transit system employees as well.
Like Augusta's plan, Savannah pays the company a fixed amount for route-hours. But, if the system is well-managed the contractor earns additional profits.
"It gives them an enormous incentive to improve," Shay said, adding that there have been more riders and they have been happier since the change.
Calvin Kennedy, a Savannah bus driver and local union president, said private management has not necessarily been a positive change for labor, though.
The company keeps fewer extra parts for maintenance in stock, he said. Bus stops along some routes have been reduced from every block to every four or five blocks. Also, a former management company negotiated to allow more part-time employees, who earn lower wages and don't receive benefits. He expects the new contractor will do the same.
"The (new) company will provide Chatham County a transit system, but the working conditions will not be as good," Kennedy said.
Shay put it a little differently.
"We are demanding a lot more of people at all levels," he said.
Anita Hairston is a senior associate for transportation at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity. She said transit privatization can be helpful or hurtful to the public, depending on how it's structured.
In Clayton County, Ga., commissioners last year shut down their C-Transit system, citing difficult financial times. A private company replaced the service, picking up some of the old routes. But the company raised fares from $1.50 to $3.50.
On the other hand, in Washington, government leaders in 2007 hired a private company to install and maintain bus shelters in exchange for the right to collect ad space revenue from them. The new aluminum and glass shelters included trash cans, benches and route maps.
"When privatization is targeted and limited and focused on service, such as promoting public health and quality of life, then you get a better outcome for folks," Hairston said.
In these economic times, many communities are struggling to fund their transit systems, Hairston said.
Eighty percent of transportation agencies nationwide are facing budget shortfalls and have responded with service cuts, fare increases, layoffs or sales tax increases.
Augusta last year spent $5 million to fund its public transit system.
Bowles said it's not his goal to get a transit system that turns a profit and Hairston said communities typically don't view transit systems in that way.
"The fare you pay doesn't pay entirely for transit, just like tolls you pay on a highway don't pay for highway construction and parking fees don't cover the cost of a parking garage. It's the cost-benefit relationship that is the challenge," she said.
The city will accept bids to run August Public Transit through Feb 9.
Reach Carole Hawkins at (706) 823-3341, or firstname.lastname@example.org.