Bused to the End of the Line and Back

For your “Yes, next question” file, consider the Newport Daily News headline, “Do school bus companies have a monopoly in R.I.?”

Besides a quarter-million dollar increase in the fiscal 2021 school bus contract with First Student bus company that was reluctantly approved by the School Committee this summer, the committee this week agreed to an addendum that will require the School Department to pay for buses if schools close again due to COVID-19. The agreement is to pay 100% of the costs of buses the first 10 days of closure and 40% after that.

Tiverton’s bus contract is for 14 regular buses costing $416.66 per day, three special education buses at $509.11 per day, and one bus to the Newport Area Career and Technical Center at Rogers High School in Newport at $417.45 per day. The School Department will also pay for the $2.03 per bus per day cost of disinfecting the buses.

Most communities have agreed to pay something for idled buses. Many have agreed to pay between 30 and 50% of their daily costs, Director of Finance Amy Roderick said of her findings from contacting other communities.

The School Department “is over a barrel. We need to agree to some form of an addendum,” Roderick told the committee of the bus company saying they still have fixed costs they must pay even if buses are sitting unused.

This is the endpoint of government labor unions.  School departments have to live under state regulations for busing, as do potential competitors to bus companies.  The result is a pool of two companies that can divide up the state as a duopoly.

Nobody has any choice but to go along because the labor unions have leveraged the taxpayer dollars they collect, as well as the legion of self-interested activists, to elect politicians who write the laws in their favor.

Note two important distinctions, here.  First, in the private sector, everybody has a pretty direct stake in the health of the company.  If labor presses too hard, the company dies.  It is much harder for a government entity to die in the same way (although states like Rhode Island and California are giving it a go).

Second, union locals, of themselves can provide a service distinct from the political corruption.  If a local simply provides a forum to bring forward problems and a mechanism to represent the unified interest of workers, then it can be a productive part of the organization.  (Although, to be honest, I’m not convinced the benefits outweigh the risks of inevitable excess and protectionism.)

Federal back-filling of budgets and the constant drumbeat of fear are helping to disguise some of the effects, but our response to COVID-19 is exposing the problems of writing the rules of society to protect a particular special interest, and we should learn from it before an actual catastrophe hits… perhaps one of our own making.

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