Downward Mobility

Are city officials too quick to drop hammer on struggling bus company?

Less than a year ago, the city of Augusta and Mobility Transit agreed to let the private company manage this city’s bus service.

 

Since then, neither party has seemed to want the partnership to succeed.

Clearly some on the Augusta Commission never wanted to privatize the bus service, and are looking for any excuse to cancel the contract already.

But Mobility has stupidly given them plenty of excuses to do so.

The company failed to report a bus accident for 244 days; has been delinquent on the electric bill and other bills; and apparently has been late with other employee payments. The company’s drug testing also is not compliant with federal mandates, being conducted at predictable times and days.

Those were just the shortcomings listed in a “cure” letter the city gave to Mobility, giving the company 30 days to fix what’s wrong. It’s also come to light this week that the company’s health insurance was canceled for a time – not long after company officials promised to right the ship.

Those of us who support privatization of many governmental services have a lot riding on this. Those who reflexively oppose privatization and want to go back to the bad-old-days of government bureaucracies running everything would be giddy at Mobility’s failure. They’ll cite it as a failure of privatization, in this case and likely others – when, in fact, it would be Mobility’s failure.

And it would be the failure of a city government in which some principals – commissioners – can’t be team players, and who jump on the first signs of trouble to declare failure in order to try to prove themselves right – instead of trying to make the best of the situation and make privatization work.

One suspects such people would love to sabotage matters.

“I don’t think we’ve been a good partner,” one city official candidly told us.

Except that Mobility seems to be making sabotage unnecessary.

We don’t know if Mobility is the answer to Augusta’s historic bus problems, which include huge costs and unimpressive service. But we do know that giving the private sector less than a year to fix the government’s long-standing problem would demonstrate a true lack of commitment to making it work.

Why would any company want that kind of partner?

Augusta Bus Riders Association President Geraldine Wilson reports improvements under Mobility, including, according to a Chronicle story Monday, “Mobility’s willingness to send a van out when a bus misses a timely stop, and its implementation of printed route schedules.”

“Since the new bus company has taken over, we have observed the drivers are much nicer,” Wilson added. “Before, you could count the nice drivers on one hand.”

Complicating matters is that, according to the Chronicle news story, the current Mobility president is “a Florida taxicab executive with a history of unpaid bills” who “has a trail of liens and judgments against him and transportation companies he owns in Florida and Michigan, including a 2011 judgment for $881,675 and a 2008 judgment for $250,513 against his Palm Beach Transportation Group, according to court records.”

Does that impact Mobility’s ability to perform? Considering the fact that the president was installed after the contract with Augusta, could Augusta officials have known such questions would arise?

These are legitimate questions that need to be asked. Augusta officials may have some post-contract due diligence to perform. And the company deserves an opportunity to address these concerns before the commission.

But what the company deserves isn’t the main issue. It’s what the public deserves. And what the public deserves is a city-county government that has its head on straight, and doesn’t make U-turns at the drop of a hat. Considering the feelings of the bus riders’ association, commissioners should do what they can to make this system work.

The company promised in writing to save the government $400,000 on the formerly $5 million operation. Ridership is up, and so is the image of the system within the riders’ association.

The company has 30 days to rescue itself – and perhaps privatization.

 

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