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Was A Detroit Bus Company Taken For A Ride?

In 1975, Matthew Rucker was one of nine black Detroit cab drivers determined to help solve a chronic problem facing the city's schools.

Noticing that they were spending an inordinate amount of time ferrying kids to school in the mornings, the cabbies soon learned that the district was in dire need of more school buses to get its kids to class, especially its special ed students. Problem was, even in 1975, the district just couldn't afford to roll out as many buses as all of its students needed.

So, in the spirit of the sort of classic American entrepreneurship that tends to rear its head 'round these parts, Rucker, then the owner of the city's upstart Blue Eagle Cab Co., joined with his eight friends as they pooled their life savings, bought a couple of used buses and formed a small transportation company on Detroit's east side. Safeway Transportation was born.

Over the next three decades, Safeway would serve as many as 120 DPS routes, expand its fleet from two buses to 85 and hire nearly 100 drivers, most from the city, to ferry tens of thousands of students to schools all across the city. En route to becoming the district's largest private transportation provider for special education students, Safeway built a reputation for reliability and a strict adherence to safety standards.

Now, 35 years after the company's founding, I'm sitting at a small table at a local library across from Patricia Whitlow, current Safeway company president and the daughter of Matthew Rucker. She's telling me that she's worried that DPS emergency financial manager Robert Bobb is on the verge of destroying her father's legacy.

And not just because Bobb's plans to fully privatize DPS buses will shutter her business -- but because, she believes, the plan will almost certainly put Detroit schoolchildren at risk.

A few days after we talk, the Michigan Citizen newspaper will offer this report about Safeway and how a bizarre and controversial bidding DPS process could kill the company in a matter of a few months.

Drivers say Bobb and his Chief Operating Officer, Terry Burgess, used an irregular and flawed bidding process to turn 75 percent of district transportation services over to First Student.

Until now, the job of transporting Detroit school children was filled by the DPS itself, and the remaining 58 percent was contracted to three Detroit based companies —Safeway Transportation, ABC Transportation and DHT Transportation.

First Student Transportation, of Cincinnati, is owned by FirstGroup plc, based in the United Kingdom. That company had the U.S. equivalent of $279 billion in revenues in 2009.

Bobb paid $85,000 to First Student in April 2009 to do a district-wide analysis of the DPS transportation system. That study provided the basis for the Request For Proposals (RFP), the guidelines for bidders, released during the summer. First Student was allowed to bid.

Among those losing their jobs with the District's switch to First Student are the 80 employees at Safeway Transportation.

"It wasn't fair," Whitlow says to me from her side of the table at the library. Her voice is low, but steady. Sitting next to friend Wes Ganson, a former DPS principal, Whitlow shifts slightly in her seat so as to look me directly in the eye. "The way that they went about this, it just wasn't right. Mr. Bobb came into Detroit, it appears, with the perception that everyone here was operating inefficiently and were tainted in some way. We were never afforded the opportunity to even say what we could do for the city of Detroit, what we have done."

Although Bobb says the deal will save the district some $50 million over five years, Whitlow expresses serious doubts about those estimates. She says the district pays Safeway about $4 million annually, less even than the $5 million DPS will make for selling its fleet to its new transportation partners. Further, she says she's hard pressed to see how a corporate giant in Scotland is a better investment for Detroit taxpayers than a local company that hires local drivers and that, above all, has maintained an impressive safety record for more than three decades.

"Let's just say it doesn't cost any less for them to operate a bus than for me to operate one," she says. "The price of fuel is the price of fuel.The cost of tire is the same for both of us. So what was the big difference in price when you have to reduce the safety in the city of Detroit? What was it?"

Safety.

Whitlow's voice grows a bit more tense as she says it. Safety. Her company has prided itself on the concept for three decades, she says. Her father built a reputation on it, a reputation that she's carried forward.

Ganson tells it to me like this: "I'd get into several, let's say, 'disputes' with parents as the building principal, because Safeway is saying, 'We're going to make sure that child is in someone's care before we let them go.' They wouldn't even back down when parents were saying, 'I'm just around the corner, go ahead.' But their stance was such that many of the parents, even if they cussed them out that first time, said, 'You know what, we really appreciate that extra."

But now, Whitlow is worried that, with First Student in charge, safety will take a back seat. She points out that First Student drivers have had a series of highly publicized -- and, if you're a parent, very troubling -- run-ins with the law recently...

Oviedo is one of five First Student drivers to get in trouble with the law last year. One was arrested for exposing himself to a girl. Another was caught with child porn. A driver was shot and killed by police in Riverdale after a high speed chase.

And First Student bus driver Brian Skoglund was arrested for child endangerment and DUI after losing control of his bus on the Edens Expressway. Skoglund had been hired despite getting fired from a Skokie job. He'd been caught driving a Village vehicle erratically and failing a drug test.

Whitlow says she's also fearful because years of running a bus company have taught her that problems on buses often go beyond whoever is behind the wheel.  "These aren't just the drivers," she insists. "These are managerial problems that go to the core of what you do.

"Safeway has always received certificates of excellence from the Michigan State Police. We've never been involved in high-speed chases. Our drivers have never been convicted of distributing child pornography, have never sexually assaulted a student while they're on the bus. If that's what we want, then, OK, bring First Student in. But we've never had that happen. How much savings is a child's life worth?"

Whitlow wants to hold on to the business her father built, of course. People are counting on her. She says Safeway has 92 total employees (not 80, as reported in one of the stories linked above), most living in the same east side neighborhood where the company is based, in the E. 7 Mile Rd./Conant area. "Most of our employees live in the city of Detroit, have households they are maintaining, property taxes they are paying," says Whitlow. "(Going out of business) would have a devastating effect on them and a severe economic impact on the community."

But more than just save the company, she also wants to preserve the central idea behind the legacy of her now-90-year-old father and his partners, workaday brothers who built their scrappy organization on the belief that they could provide each child a ride that's as secure as it is sure. Safeway indeed.

And so, as she gets ready to leave the library and trundle out into the overcast morning, the daughter of the man whose Blue Eagle Cab Co. was once admired by an earlier generation of Detroiters for daring to take on local taxi mainstays like Checker and City assures me that she'll keep fighting a deal she calls patently unfair.

"It's not over," says Patricia Whitlow. "First Student is giving DPS drivers until March 26 to turn in all their applications (for employment). First Student has moved in at the west-side bus terminal. So I guess in their minds it's over. But in my mind, and in the minds of a whole lot of other people, it is not."

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