D.C. May Seek To End Private Contracts for Public Transit

Martin Di Caro

A coalition of organized labor and social justice groups are calling on D.C. lawmakers to stop the District from contracting out public transit services, saying the private firms that operate the Circulator bus system and D.C. Streetcar fail to provide reliable service to riders and treat their employees poorly.

“We are concerned about privatization of good public-sector jobs,” said Barbara Kraft of the Washington Interfaith Network, which is teaming with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and individual bus and streetcar operators to lobby the D.C. Council to bring all District transit operations in-house.

“We know from our research that these contractors have a lot of problems,” Kraft said.

The group visited the John A. Wilson Building last week for face-to-face meetings with council members.

At least one legislator is taking their argument seriously.

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the city should study whether ending its relationship with private transit contractors would produce better results, but she cautioned that such a change could not happen for years. As of now, the District has no personnel with the expertise to operate bus or streetcar lines.

“We will have to hire a company in the meantime, no matter what, because we couldn’t do this right away,” Cheh said.

The transit union is making its case now to lose the private firms because the current Circulator contract — with Cincinnati-based First Transit — expires next June. Several firms, First Transit among them, are bidding for a new 5-year contract with three 5-year options.

The union and its advocates want the District to sever its ties with the company that has been repeatedly docked payments for failing to uphold its end of the contract.

As WAMU documented in May, First Transit, which has been the Circulator contractor since the bright red buses began plying Washington roads in 2005, has struggled to properly maintain the fleet and keep the buses running on time. On-time performance has since improved, largely because 26 new buses have replaced the oldest vehicles in the fleet.

The transit union and its supporters are also criticizing RMDT, the French firm that operates the D.C. Streetcar, as well as the subcontractors that hire the streetcar personnel. They say streetcar operators and mechanics — who are still negotiating an initial labor contract nearly two years after the streetcar launched — are underpaid compared to their counterparts in other parts of the country.

Ricky Harrell, a streetcar mechanic, said the workforce is also fighting for more generous healthcare and retirement benefits. “Right now, we don’t have anything on the table,” he said. The city renewed RDMT’s contract for another five years last July.

Public transit run by private firms

Neither First Transit nor RDMT responded to emails seeking comment. A top official at the District Department of Transportation, the agency that awards the transit contracts, said that the next Circulator contract will contain stringent requirements to improve on-time performance and maintenance.

“Everything from making sure buses are clean and safe, to making sure that the buses are there on time,” said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s chief project delivery officer. “Our current [request for proposal], which closed yesterday, is really trying to get at the performance issues we’ve seen with the Circulator. There are incentives and disincentives that are part of the contract aimed at delivering good service for riders.”

But DDOT does not foresee a time when it will take over the Circulator and Streetcar programs.

“There is a lot of expertise that comes with running a bus service that the District has not had in the past, and has never frankly had direct employees running transit service,” Zimbabwe said.

In an interview, Council member Cheh said she is “pretty sure” the District can find a better company than First Transit to take over the Circulator while it studies bringing the bus system in-house.

The Ward 3 Democrat added that she is committed to ensuring that Circulator employees obtain “fare wages and that they are treated fairly on the job,” but she will not support “the same pension as WMATA [drivers] because they have a fixed pension and that drives municipalities, governments, and entities around the country to bankruptcy.”

Last year, ATU Local 1764, which represents Circulator bus drivers, won basic wage parity with Metrobus operators, who start at $18 per hour and top out at $31.69 after several years of service. But, in the transit union’s view, there remain major disparities because Circulator drivers do not have a defined pension program or strong health insurance benefits.

Moreover, ATU leaders believe Circulator personnel could see a wage cut unless DDOT insists that a new contractor respects the terms of the existing collective bargaining agreement.

According to Amy Vruno, an organizer with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, which is backing the workers’ cause, D.C. streetcar operators are among the lowest paid in the country at $20.98. The highest paid streetcar operators earn $38.90, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median wage is $31.09.

Circulators on the upswing

Since 26 new Circulator buses joined the fleet of 67 total vehicles in August, on-time performance stabilized after a dismal spring.

In April, 52 percent of buses arrived on time across the six Circulator routes. The mark reached 76 percent in August, 74 percent in September, and 73 percent last month. However, First Transit is still failing to meet the contractual requirement of 80 percent on-time performance.

By comparison, the on-time performance goal of 80 percent was met or exceeded during all 12 months of 2012, long before the fleet fell into a state of disrepair.

There is improvement in another important category: pullout, or meeting the number of buses necessary for full service at 6 a.m. daily.

On weekdays, First Transit is required to have 50 buses (44 in service and 6 spares). Over the past four weeks starting Sunday, Oct. 29, the company met the pullout requirement on nine days, and came within a bus or two of meeting the target on seven days.

On weekends over the same period, when fewer buses (33) are needed, First Transit has met the pullout target 100 percent of the time.

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