'Yeah, I'm bitter'

Frustrations build as school bus operators scramble to meet rules

Published on June 25, 2010
Josh Gladney, president of Gladney's Bus Lines Ltd. of Portugal Cove, is upset with new government regulations for school buses taking effect in September.

New safety regulations and the public tendering process are creating a rough ride for school bus companies, operators say.

"A public tender means that the lowest bid hauls the kid," disgruntled school bus operator Dave Callahan said Thursday.

New safety regulations and the public tendering process are creating a rough ride for school bus companies, operators say.

"A public tender means that the lowest bid hauls the kid," disgruntled school bus operator Dave Callahan said Thursday.

Callahan said government accepting the lowest bids for school busing contracts encourages companies to undercut one another other, and it's reaching a crisis that could impact services.

"If you want to wonder if I'm bitter, yeah, I'm bitter," said Callahan, who operates Central Service Station in St. George's.

Right now, school bus operators say many can't afford to upgrade their fleet to Canadian Standards Association (CSA) regulations by the September deadline.

Government Services Minister Kevin O'Brien explains that buses have had to comply with these regulations for years, but inspections about a year ago revealed they weren't being met, so government set a deadline.

The most contentious and substantive upgrade is a mandatory roof hatch - an emergency escape like you'd see on a city bus.

On March 31, operators received a letter from the province's motor vehicle registrar stating that they will be required to submit documentation certifying the installation of the hatch has been done in accordance with the manufacturer's specifications.

That's somewhat of a contradiction from what O'Brien told The Telegram Thursday.

"We do not require this work to be done at a plant in Ontario or a plant in Quebec and it doesn't have to be certified by the manufacturer. We will accept any certification by the school bus owner."

A sales rep from one bus provider has said it refuses to certify the work. The only modifications the company will certify have to be done by its staff or staff trained by them.

If it's done locally, a lawyer has told Callahan, the operators are liable for the roof hatches if anything goes wrong.

Josh Gladney, president of Gladney's Bus, the province's biggest school bus line, said he's in better shape than some, because he only has about 10 units that need to be upgraded.

He doesn't think his buses will be ready in time - he has mechanics on staff, but they don't know where to begin since the changes are structural.

"It's like if you took your car and they told you had to put a sunroof in it," Gladney said.

O'Brien said government's top priority is the safety of children.

"We think is a very important safety issue," he said of getting the hatches installed.

Many of the American buses operators used to buy have these hatches, but as of last year the provincial government has made operators buy buses from Canada, which often do not have the hatch.

O'Brien said many U.S. buses are not up to CSA standards and the regulations vary from state to state.

All U.S. buses would have to be inspected.

Gladney said the changes that have to be made to the Canadian buses, mostly from Quebec, are more substantial.

Challenging the operators' tight budgets, the Canadian buses cost up to twice as much as used buses from the U.S., Gladney said.

Callahan said a fairer tendering process would allow him to pay his drivers a living wage and put newer buses on the road.

"And if you listen to government, they make that claim, too, but they try to suck and blow at the same time," he said.

The school bus operators have lobbied to get the tendering process scrapped altogether and have the awarding of contracts go through the Public Utilities Board.

Callahan said operators are getting much more money for their routes in other provinces.

Gladney, the third generation operating the family business, said he has been forced to downsize.

"I've commitments to meet with payments on buses for the next few years. Only for that, if I owned all my own buses, I wouldn't even go back on the roads in September," he said. "That's how bad it is."

Callahan said the Newfoundland and Labrador School Bus Owners' Association, of which both are members, formed about five years ago out of desperation.

"We got together because nobody in government was listening to us, nobody cared to hear what we had to say."

But, Callahan said, the result of about 90 operators working together hasn't helped.

"(It's) the worst I've ever seen and it's heading in the worst direction ever," he said.

Education Minister Darin King was unavailable for comment.

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