High salaries and gas prices drive up school bus costs

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Cities and towns in Massachusetts are facing a skyrocketing cost as they finalize next year’s budgets: getting kids to school.

Some school bus companies hit by steadily rising fuel prices and a labor shortage are passing that pain on to municipalities.

“We’ve seen an increase of about 35% in our transportation costs,” revered mayor Brian Arrigo told GBH News. “They’ve gone from the $6.9 million that we spent in 2022, we’re now projecting $9.3 million in 2023. And that’s actually a lot of work, working with our vendors and trying to find ways to effectively get children to school.”

The city’s contract with Healey Bus is one of those increases. He operated the school district’s large school buses for several years. Owner Mark Healey said competition for qualified riders is heating up. To attract and retain drivers, he pays higher wages — now $28 an hour — driving up his costs.

“We have competition with Amazon, we have competition with MBTA advertising for CDL [Commercial Driver’s License] bus drivers,” Healey said. “I mean, there’s an ad on a billboard right above one of my yards – and I’m not saying they did it intentionally, but it sure does. is convenient.”

Healey, which has been in the business for more than 30 years, said its diesel fuel costs have nearly doubled in the past year – from $3.01 per gallon in June 2021 to a price this week of 5, $85 a gallon.

“I’ve never seen the fuel fluctuate like it did in my life,” Healey said. “I mean, one night about a month and a half ago, two months ago, it went up 13 cents a gallon overnight. So I mean, when you sit down and sharpen your pencil to give the best price [on a contract]you really have to… try to make sure you’re not working for nothing.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said rising bus transportation costs are hitting many of its members. When a “bill” like the cost of schooling children goes up for municipalities — even less than Revere’s 35%, say 15 or 20% — Beckwith said it’s rarely the only leap.

“They’re not getting a 15% or 20% increase in public aid to education. They don’t get a 15% or 20% increase in their own local revenue,” he said. “And budget pressures will come not just in school transportation, but in construction and other areas that are seeing very high inflation due to supply chain disruptions and so on.”

While Arrigo acknowledged the skyrocketing costs facing school bus companies, he said he thinks there’s too much consolidation in the industry and isn’t convinced his city received the most competitive offers. Healey, whose company was the sole bidder for next year’s contract, believes he gave the city “an accurate price”.

Healey said not every company thinks they can come up with a bid that suits them financially for a given job, like the Revere contract, which calls for 24 buses that can hold 71 passengers each.

“There are some jobs I won’t bid on because I don’t have drivers,” Healey said, “And that’s really it, and I think a lot of my competitors feel the same way. And that’s It’s a big job.”

The state only requires cities and towns to transport children to elementary school, but Arrigo argued that it wouldn’t be safe to let Revere middle and high school students try to get there. alone at school in a condensed, high-traffic city. And Beckwith told Fall River that they are motivated to take all of their students on buses because it has a big impact on reducing absenteeism rates.

Arrigo said Revere will cover some of the increased transportation costs with a portion of the city’s $4 million in revenue from new growth. That growth includes development near the city’s beach, two new hotels and, ironically, one of two new Amazon fulfillment centers in Revere – the very company that bus company owners say is driving up their costs. wages.

Revere Chief Financial Officer Richard Viscay said the roughly $1 million from new growth revenue that is contributing to rising school bus costs is badly needed elsewhere.

“We are the fastest growing town in the Commonwealth,” Viscay said, “which means a new fire station and [Department of Public Works] facility, a new high school – any kind of new infrastructure to support the increased number of residents is definitely somewhere those dollars could go other than in transportation.

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