Patriots Point Authority hires retired general to lead charge into future

Hugh Tant III

COLUMBIA -- A report on a state pilot project to privatize school bus maintenance shows the contracted repair shop cost more money, required more direct state supervision, and had more service problems than those operated by the education agency, according to the evaluation released by the agency Friday.

The report comes as Gov. Nikki Haley seeks ideas on how to privatize the state's school bus fleet -- an issue she touted on the campaign trail as a way to save money. South Carolina is the only state to own and maintain a statewide school bus fleet.

School districts handle operational costs, such as paying bus drivers.

Maintenance for 88 buses serviced in Mount Pleasant has been handled by General Diesel since March 2008.

The pilot project was the result of former Gov. Mark Sanford's push to privatize the fleet.

General Diesel President Ron Hallam said it was a learning process for both his company and the state, and changes have been made that should improve results.

He said the age of the buses presented unforeseen challenges.

The report by Missouri-based TransPar Group Inc. shows the state spent about $1,500 more per bus at the contracted shop than at those statewide. The additional cost jumps to more than $2,000 per bus when compared specifically with the closest state-operated shop in Charleston.

Reasons for the extra cost include mechanics earning nearly twice the hourly rate as state workers, and extra supervision from the state.

The state had to renegotiate the contract last year to keep the company from going under.

Changes included the state providing some parts for the aging buses, which can be more expensive and harder to find.

The state's fleet averages nearly 14 years per vehicle, with an average bus odometer reading more than 200,000 miles.

The state has also provided more hands-on training and assistance since March 2010 -- two to three times what other shops receive, said state transportation director Don Tudor.

A spokesman for state schools chief Mick Zais, who supports privatization, said the report says more about the contracting process and specific vendor than school bus privatization in general.

The state agency that handles contracts went with the lowest bidder, but perhaps should have paid more attention to bidders' finances and experience with maintaining a fleet, which is different than repairing driver-owned vehicles, said spokesman Jay Ragley.

According to the report, regular inspections weren't performed. For example, it was discovered in March 2010 that dozens of tires did not meet safety standards for tread depth.

"It's really tough to tell what this says about other discussions," Ragley said. "It may provide insights into other proposals."

General Diesel's contract with the state expires next year. It can be renewed another year. Whether the state alters or stops the contract will depend on performance, Ragley said.