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Boston school officials to propose new bus company

Decision follows 2 years of chronic late arrivals

After two years of chronically late buses, school officials in Boston are planning to recommend a new transportation company to oversee daily operations of the city’s more than 700 school buses starting next fall.

The recommendation calls for awarding a five-year contract to Veolia Transportation Inc., based in Lombard, Ill. The proposal, which follows two rounds of public bidding, will be presented to the School Committee Wednesday night.

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In addition to the committee, the contract requires the approval of Mayor Thomas M. Menino. If approved, it would replace the School Department’s current contract with First Student after it expires on June 30.

Veolia beat out three other bidders, including First Student.

“They hit the mark with ­exactly what we are looking for in terms of transparency, customer service, accountability, technology, and safety,” said Carl Allen, the School Department’s transportation director. “We also felt they put forward a contract that would best meet our new high standards for performance.”

The recommendation will be presented on the same night that the School Committee is expected to vote on a new way of assigning students to schools, which should enable more students to attend schools closer to their homes.

That change, the biggest in more than two decades for the city’s student-assignment system, would go into effect for fall 2014. It could potentially save roughly $2 million annually in busing costs.

The hiring of a new busing company is also significant. It would end a 10-year relationship with First Student and follows a turbulent period. In ­December 2011, the School Depart­ment fined First Student $800,000, after 37 percent of buses arrived as much as an hour late to school in the preceding months.

But First Students’ oversight of the bus fleet was only part of the problem. The School Depart­ment, which routes the buses, struggled to implement a software program over a two-year period that aimed to ­increase the efficiency of its buses. Consequently, poorly timed bus routes played a significant role in causing buses to be late.

The problems eventually were fixed, and buses are currently arriving on time 95 to 97 percent of the time.

Allen said the late buses had no influence on the city’s decision to end its relationship with First Student. “It wasn’t a factor,” he said.

First Student declined to comment because the awarding of a new contract has not been officially announced.

The proposed contract with Veolia includes several features the School Department sought, such as a minimum of a 95 percent on-time performance, doubling safety training for bus drivers, reductions in overall fleet emissions through “environmental technology,” and regular customer service surveys.

School officials declined to disclose the cost of the proposed contract with Veolia. But they said the bid came in $6 million less than they had anti­cipated.

Veolia could not be reached for comment.

But in a statement provided by the School Department, Mark Joseph, chief executive ­officer of Veolia, said: “We are very pleased to be able to bring our skills and experience to the Boston public schools and the city of Boston. We respect [the Boston public schools’] commitment to safety, efficiency, and the highest-quality service, and we are dedicated to achieving its high standards.”

The other bidders were Student Transportation of America and TransitPro Logistics.

The School Department ­rebid the contract last fall after the initial round yielded just one proposal. School officials determined that initial proposal, which was from First Student, was not financially advantageous to the city.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said Veolia will deliver “a new high standard of service to our students and their families.”

“Offering our students a safe, dependable, and efficient way to get to and from school is one of our most basic obligations,” Johnson said in a statement. “Our agreement with ­Veolia will help us look at new ways to deliver this service better than ever before.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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