Photo: Fran Ruchalski, The Enterprise / Staff Photographer
The Beaumont City Council on Tuesday selected a new company to run the public transit system, after the current operator declined to seek renewal of its contract.
The council approved a three-year contract, with a pair of one-year options, for Cincinnati-based First Transit Inc. to manage the local bus service. The company will be paid up to $220,000 per year over, accounting for yearly increases, over that span.
First Transit will take over in less than a month, as the city recently was informed by Beaumont Municipal Transit that the company would not seek to renew its contract. Owner Bill Munson didn’t give the city a reason, and attempts by The Enterprise to reach him for comment Tuesday afternoon were not successful.
Beaumont Transit, which has run the city’s bus system for several years, came under fire earlier this year when employees alleged the company wasn’t doing enough to protect employees from coronavirus. At least three employees have tested positive for the virus since Beaumont’s first case in mid-March.
The city holds a contract with the transit operator and subsidizes the program. But the system itself must be run by a private contractor because of a clash between state and federal laws regarding which government employees can unionize and what action the city can take.
On Tuesday, the City Council chose between First Transit, a national company with 65 years of experience that operates in more than 300 locations across the country, and a local bidder that has been in business moving freight, but not people, for 25 years.
Council members Robin Mouton and Audwin Samuel voted against the First Transit contract.
Mouton during the meeting expressed concern about a news story about transit services run by First Transit in Pasadena, California. According to a report from Teamsters Local 848, which represented a driver who was fired for “refusing to drive a bus until he could see out of his driver’s side mirror.”
The worker was later rehired, received full back pay and his employment record was cleared of the issue.
When reached after the meeting, Mouton said she’s concerned for the safety of transit riders and the potential liability for taxpayers should anything similar happen in Beaumont and prompt a lawsuit.
A First Transit representative who attended Tuesday’s meeting said he wasn’t aware of the specific incident, but he stressed that the company’s motto is, “If you can’t do it safely, don’t do it.”
Samuel said he wanted to postpone the vote by a week so he could ask additional questions and gather more information. Reached after the meeting, Samuel declined to give examples of the additional information he was looking for. He said the vote had been taken, and he was moving forward.
The First Transit representative said a transition such as this one generally takes about six weeks — or about twice as long as the time remaining before Beaumont Transit’s contract expires at the end of the month.
Beaumont Planning and Community Development Director Chris Boone said Munson had informed the city that First Transit would not be open to continuing service to allow more time for the transition.
Ultimately, the contract the council approves run for three years with the opportunity to renew it twice, each for one-year increments. It’s expected to cost the city between nearly $218,000 and $220,000, accounting for yearly increases, over the five allowed years.
The contract does not account for any immediate fare increases, although First Transit does agree to prepare or assist in the preparation of annual budgets and projections. The company’s representative also told the council all current employees would be asked back, although they would have to reapply as a paperwork “formality.”
There was little discussion about Espree Johnson Enterprise, also known as Big Red Trucking, which was the local company to bid on the job.
Owner Phillip Johnson Sr. told the council that he’s been in business moving commodities for 25 years. He acknowledged a “lack of experience at transit” but said he would have kept on all current employees to maintain institutional knowledge.
“But I have 25 years of managing with payroll and all the other duties of a manager and operator,” Johnson said. “I’ve been doing that for 25 years.”
First Transit also submitted a lower bid, and Boone said the company has committed to bringing in a consultant during the first six months to analyze the current transit system. That would include a look at passenger counts, an analysis of routes and fare-box revenue and a customer survey.
The company also would look at potential transit innovations, such as micro- and on-demand transit.
Councilman Mike Getz, who’s already requested a similar study, says the proposal addresses all the concerns he previously had with the system.
“I am thrilled that they are going to come in and do that,” he said. “It sounds like they have tremendous experience in running a transit system. They can look and see not only what our needs are but also compare it to other systems they are running to use best practices to give the citizens of Beaumont the best program we can have.”