Union Demands Accountability, Safety for D.C. Bus Service

Tracy Smith (at podium), a shop steward and executive board member with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, discusses lack of safety on Metro buses during a May 18 press conference outside the Shepherd Parkway Metrobus Division in southwest D.C. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)
Tracy Smith (at podium), a shop steward and executive board member with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, discusses lack of safety on Metro buses during a May 18 press conference outside the Shepherd Parkway Metrobus Division in southwest D.C. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

A prominent labor union went public with its plea for Metro and D.C. officials to demand better bus service in the region.

District officials should oversee and manage its public transit system, or it will continue fail just like its Circulator bus program and the city streetcar system, said the Amalgamated Transit Union International, which encompasses Metro’s largest workers’ union.

The organization released a report that explicitly gives examples of how such privatization negatively affects the city.

For instance, the report — titled “Fool D.C. Twice” — notes that Circulator buses remained in service while in need of repairs. The streetcar service along H Street in Northeast doesn’t connect to the city’s major job centers and stops short of Union Station.

“Public transit is something to provide access for everyone to improve their own lives,” Michael McCall-Delgado, a strategic researcher for ATU and author of the report, said in a teleconference call Wednesday. “The District needs to take responsibility for these services. It should stop hiding behind the public contractor and provide the services [residents] deserve.”

The Circulator bus was established in 2005 with the District Department of Transportation, which owns the Circulator buses and also manages the city’s streetcar service.

Terry Owens, spokesman for DDOT, said the agency hasn’t seen the ATU report and will review it becomes available.

“However, providing safe, efficient and reliable transit services for the District of Columbia is an essential part of our mission at DDOT,” he said. “We continuously evaluate our transit services to determine where improvements can be made.”

A private sector company, Cincinnati-based First Transit, operates the Circulator’s six routes that include the more tourist-driven and affluent areas of the District, such as the National Mall, Woodley Park and Georgetown. First Transit also provides training to the 200 Circulator employees.

Jay Brock, spokesman for First Transit, said the majority of the buses currently in stock are about 13 years old. He said additional maintenance workers and a consultant have been recently hired to not only improve the fleet, but also analyze on-time performance.

“The parts that are needed for that particular fleet [has] limited suppliers, so it takes us a little bit of time to get the pieces for repair and maintenance,” he said. “When we identify a bus that’s unsafe to be on the road, we pull it off the road.”

That didn’t satisfy the union.

The report notes the farebox recovery ratio in the Circulator ($1 per ride) decreased from 24 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2014. In comparison, around the same time frame, Metrobus ($1.75 per ride) remained slightly steady at 26 percent to 25 percent.

“The end result is that costs are shifted away from the Circulator’s riders and toward District taxpayers as a whole, most of whom derive no direct or indirect benefit from the service,” the union report said. “The general public is subsidizing a service designed to serve the District’s whiter, wealthier residents and tourists.”

Bus safety

Meanwhile, ATU Local 689, Metro’s largest union, claimed Thursday the transit agency isn’t allowing bus operators to complete daily pre-trip inspections before vehicles leave the lots.

The complaint stems partly from lack of radio communication on some buses to confirm all inspections are complete with a person at the bus operations control center.

According to a Metro pre-trip condition card, some of the items checked by a bus operator are wheelchair lifts, fare boxes and fire extinguishers.

A copy of a pre-trip inspection card that bus operators must fill out daily before taking a bus off a lot is seen here. The agency's union says drivers are being forced to take defective buses off the lot. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)
A copy of a pre-trip inspection card that Metro bus operators must fill out daily before taking a bus off a lot is seen here. The transit agency’s union says drivers are being forced to take defective buses off the lot. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

“Upper management’s insistence that operators begin their trips regardless of whether they had ensured the complete safety of the bus spoke volumes about their apathy towards the safety of the riders and their employees,” Tracie Smith, a shop steward and executive board member with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said outside the Shepherd Parkway Bus Division in southwest D.C. “[Metro] has moved towards the attitude that service trumps safety.”

Quincy Jones, an assistant business agent and board member with Local 689, said Metro officials called for the agency’s transit police to remove him from property in Fairfax County and in D.C. on Thursday. The given reason, he said, was that he impeded bus drivers from getting buses on the road for service.

Jones said he ensured the bus operators conducted pre-inspections before they left. He plans on preparing a report and presenting it at the next board of directors meeting on May 25.

Jones said the relationship between the union and Metro has worsened since the union’s contract expired in June.

“This relationship has started to sour and sour and sour ever since then,” he said. “[Metro officials] are giving us such pushback.”

A representative for Metro did not respond to an email request for comment.

Shortly after the union press conference, the agency announced details of the 16th and final phase of its SafeTrack maintenance project, which will shut down portions of the Red Line in Montgomery County.

Work on a five-mile segment of the Red Line between Shady Grove and Twinbrook will start June 17. The Shady Grove and Rockville stations will be closed and free shuttle buses between those locations will be provided.

About William J. Ford – Washington Informer Staff Writer 255 Articles
I decided I wanted to become a better writer while attending Bowie State University and figured that writing for the school newspaper would help. I’m not sure how much it helped, but I enjoyed it so much I decided to keep on doing it, which I still thoroughly enjoy 20 years later. If I weren’t a journalist, I would coach youth basketball. Actually, I still play basketball, or at least try to play, once a week. My kryptonite is peanut butter. What makes me happy – seeing my son and two godchildren grow up. On the other hand, a bad call made by an official during a football or basketball game makes me throw up my hands and scream. Favorite foods include pancakes and scrambled eggs which I could eat 24-7. The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me, or more accurately the most painful, was when I was hit by a car on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. If I had the power or money to change the world, I’d make sure everyone had three meals a day. And while I don’t have a motto or favorite quote, I continue to laugh which keeps me from driving myself crazy. You can reach me several ways: Twitter @jabariwill, Instagram will_iam.ford2281 or e-mail, wford@washingtoninformer.com