Bus drivers and the San Joaquin Regional Transit District are at odds over the process of putting out to bid the Dial-A-Ride and Hopper Service.
The union says if the district loses the contract and a service such as Laidlaw or MV Transportation wins the bid, service will decline in quality.
But the district says there are safeguards in the contract that will bar a repeat performance of 2002, when the district took the contract away from Laidlaw.
Some of those safeguards include monitoring the contractor's performance, said Donna Kelsay, SJRTD's general manager. Another, she said, could include a five-year contract that runs three years, then could be extended for a year twice.
And Kelsay said she wondered if customers would notice a difference in contractors anyway.
She pointed to Lodi's GrapeLine service, whose contract was recently awarded to MV Transportation, a Fairfield-based transit company.
According to Kelsay, law forces the district into the bidding process every five years.
Under the 1994 agreement that allowed the district to run the county bus service, the Legislature required the district to the Dial-A-Ride and Hopper services out to bid, Kelsay said.
In 2002, Laidlaw was removed as the contractor after service started to run into problems, including customers being left behind, said Vince Contino, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 276.
Now he said the district is inviting the same problems to happen again.
Contino said he wants the law changed and wants to keep the service with the district.
Kelsay said she can put in a bid to keep the two systems with the district, but the bid would be for less cost than what it is now - something the drivers might not be willing to accept.
"It depends on what the operators say," she said.
The district now runs its own interregional buses that go from the county to Livermore and Santa Clara County at the lower-cost level.
Kelsay said it was done that way to keep jobs with the district. She said she could also put the offer in at the same cost, but she's pretty sure the district wouldn't win the bid.
She said the union's rejection is based on losing members.
"They want their people in their union," she said. "They want those union-paying members."
Contino said he's more concerned about getting good pay for skilled workers.
If either Laidlaw or MV Transit gets the contractor, he said, wages will go down or drivers will leave for other jobs. Management and dispatcher wages will also decline, he said.
"Laidlaw pays low on its management side. It runs a lean operation," he said.
One bus driver who did not want to be identified said it didn't matter to him which system took on the service.
Driving the bus that runs from French Camp to Thornton and then to Lockeford, the driver said a contractor change wouldn't bother him.
A 15-year veteran bus driver, he said, the only thing that would bother him was if the new company changes staff.
"It would all be up to the bidder," he said.