NSW Govt to charge kids for school bus travel

By: Chris Smith

The New South Wales Government plans to introduce an annual co-payment for primary and secondary school students for access the

The New South Wales Government plans to introduce an annual co-payment for primary and secondary school students for access the school student travel scheme (SSTS), a move industry says could be devastating to rural school bus operators.

A fact sheet says co-payments will apply from the start of the first term of 2009, but the administration of the new scheme may not begin until the following term.

The Government says the scheme will still be heavily subsidised. In real terms the $45 annual fee for primary school children and $90 fee for high school children will save the Government close to $33 million a year for a scheme costing in excess of $470 million a year.

It has retained the existing eligibility requirements for the SSTS and, in a win for students, has increased the operation of the scheme to 7pm on route services to cover children participating in after-school activities, including sport.

The Government has also offered hardship provisions for children who are covered by the Commonwealth Health Care Card, exempting them from the fees, and capped the fees for a family to $180 per year.

NSW Transport Minister David Campbell says tough decisions have been made as part of this mini-budget process.

But the Government claims it is unlikely there will be a significant impact on bus operators, and Government contracts with private bus operators allow for change from time to time.

He says rural and regional (type B) bus contracts may be marginally impacted but mechanisms are in place to limit the impact on operators.

"Given the costs of car travel, particularly the price of petrol, it's unlikely that a small co-payment will result in a major shift from school buses to private cars," says the Minister.

However, in a statement issued before the mini-budget announcement, BusNSW said a cut in patronage caused by the introduction of the fees would have a significant impact on all country services – not just school bus services.

"This is because of the accepted practice of cross-subsidy in rural and regional areas. Funding for SSTS is used as a base to provide other fare-paying services in rural NSW," the Association says.

"We have had the Unsworth Report, the Parry Report and at least five years of bus reform and now they want to start again? The Bus reform process highlighted the difficulties that the industry had and recommended substantial increases to payments to ensure the viability of the industry."

BusNSW Executive Director Darryl Mellish says the Association’s position remains that any reforms to SSTS should be undertaken in consultation with the key stakeholders as it impacts on education, transport and planning.

"A co-parent contribution without adequate mechanisms to administer the payments and maintain bus services is ill-conceived and may be counter productive," he says.

"BusNSW is meeting to attempt to address the need to maintain services if parents elect alternative school transport now they are being charged a fee and are seeking written assurances."

On a brighter note, the budget has called for 300 additional buses over two years (2009-10 and 2010-11) to increase service capacity and frequency, and has accelerated the delivery of 150 articulated buses over three years (2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12).

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