The Liberals promised they’d do it six years ago, but no-one dreamed they would.

Non Government school lobbyists had occasionally raised the free school bus plan (promised by the Liberals in 1995, but not delivered) but it had long been dismissed by unions and government-school lobby groups. The thinking was that it was so expensive that a politician wouldn’t go for it and frankly, there were better ways to spend the money.

But then, to the shock of the sector, it appeared in this week’s ACT Budget.

It is difficult to assess how much the ACT’s plan will end up costing. The Government estimates $27 million over the next four years. After set-up expenses, it projected yearly cost at a little under $6 million.

But there are some very worrying figures from other states.

In NSW, whose system the ACT has virtually copied, the scheme costs $400 million per year.

The ACT’s $27 million figure was arrived at by assuming the scheme would increase student bus use by about 15 per cent. The first year would be the most expensive, with ten extra buses to be bought straight away for $4.5 million and some start-up costs – working out who is eligible and who is not and then issuing the tickets – adding to the cost of running the system, making $5.5 million. So that’s just under $10 million for the first year.

Every year after that the Government estimates that another few buses will be needed, costing $1.26 million annually. Subsidising the free travel will cost around $4.6million a year.

In NSW, the Federation of Parents and Citizens Association is publicly supportive of free buses, because parents have come to see them as a right.

In the mid-1990s the then NSW Minister for Transport Brian Langton wrote to the federation about changes to the scheme.

“In 1970-71 the cost of the scheme was $13 million. This cost has risen to $324 million for 1994-5. Without making changes to the scheme, the Government faced the prospect of the scheme reaching half-a-billion dollars by 2002.

Executive Officer of the federation Warren Johnson said governments of both political colours had been trying to cut back the scheme almost since it was introduced. But attempts had been blocked at every turn.

Some small changes made in 1996 had caused the community considerable angst.

The strong message for the ACT was that, once you had a free school bus scheme, you could never get rid of it, and it was very expensive, he said.

“It is ironic that the ACT Government is introducing the scheme, given it has been a constant thorn in the side of the NSW Government”.

The federation now believes that only trips to the nearest government school shouild be free. In NSW, children travel across town to attend exclusive, non government schools, or selective government schools, at the taxpayers’ expense and that’s what is blowing out the costs.

Urban Services Minister Brendan Smyth and Education Minister Bill Stefaniak say the scheme is about allowing parents and students more “choice”. A free bus pass means they will be able to travel to attend any school they like. Assuming of course they can pay the fees for a non-Government place, or fit into their chosen Government school.

Australian Education Union president Clive Haggar said on Budget day that the scheme would be the death of the community based, government school. This is probably an exaggeration but over the long term, patterns of school attendance may well shift with the cost of transport no longer an issue.

One thing the union is certainly right about is that on average, non-government school families will get greater benefit from the plan. Students travel further to attend non-government schools. They spend more on bus tickets, so free travel means more money back in their pockets.

As well as traveling further, they are more likely to use buses. Thirty-five percent of ACT students attend non-government schools but they use 60 per cent of the dedicated bus services.

The Government knows this and does not believe it needs to justify it.

ACT Chief Minister Gary Humphries said it had been a matter of personal regret that the school buses initiative had not been delivered before now.

So how will with ACT Scheme work?

From Kindergarten to Year 3 all students will get free travel. Year 3 to 6 students will have to live more than 1.6km away from school, secondary students more than 2km from school.

Information packs and application forms were being sent to every ACT School from yesterday. ACTION will do the first cull and issue passes. The Urban Services Department has the unenviable job of managing the appeals process. And there are bound to be a number of them.

On Budget day, Mr Smyth explained that the distance would not be measured simply as the crow flies. If a Canberra Grammar Student had to walk around the Federal Golf Club to get to school, the distance traveled on the roundabout route would be taken into account, he said.

But the student would have to lodge an appeal, and measure the distance they walked, and it had to be a sensible route.

The Canberra Times understands that the bus plan was a very late addition to the 2001 Budget. While Smyth maintains his department has drawn up a good plan, many of the details are not certain, or not yet in place.

Smyth admits they can’t be exact about the increase in use. On Day 1 fleets of Taragos and other people movers will be on standby to ensure that no student is left stranded.

But one thing is set in stone – the whole thing will start on September 1, six weeks before the ACT Election.

Source: The Canberra Times, Page C7. Saturday 5 May 2001. By Catriona Jackson.