Two years after winning a major fight for wage increases, D.C. Circulator drivers are on a bigger mission: to persuade the District to municipalize the popular $1-a-ride bus system.

But this could be a tougher fight for the transit workers. The District is close to awarding a new five-year operations contract for the service, which would reduce the workers’ chances to transition into the public sector anytime soon.

The drivers who operate the distinctive red buses carrying the District Department of Transportation logo work for First Transit, a private company that runs transit systems all across the country and has a $21 million annual contract with the city.

First Transit’s contract expires June 30, and DDOT is expected to select a provider before that deadline. For the past few months, labor, civic and religious organizations have been pressing the District to do away with using a private contractor and have been running an aggressive social media campaign and holding rallies and meetings to garner support. The workers want the city to run the service because they believe it would mean better benefits, job stability and accountability.

City transportation officials say they have to issue a new contract but have agreed to study whether bringing the Circulator operation in-house is feasible.

“There are many complexities that would coincide with that type of endeavor,” DDOT Director Jeff Marootian told a D.C. Council committee in February.

The District has never operated an in-house transit system, he said, and assuming more than 220 employees into the agency is not something that could happen quickly or easily. It also would be costly.

Running the bus system in-house would require hiring management, while the cost for employee insurance and other benefits to the city would increase.

A two-year-old report from former DDOT director Leif Dormsjo estimated it could cost $6 million more a year to run the system in-house.

“The contractor assumes liability for crashes, employee and customer injuries, property damage and other potential issues that would otherwise be the responsibility of the District,” Dormsjo said.

The District funds the service but entrusts Metro with Circulator operations and oversight. Metro in turn contracts with First Transit to run the system.

After numerous reliability and oversight problems in recent years, DDOT is taking over management of the six-route system from Metro when it issues the new contract this spring. And although officials would not discuss the procurement process, they have hinted at the possibility of replacing First Transit, which has run the Circulator since its 2005 launch.

The Eno Center for Transportation, which has conducted research on best practices in transit management, is working with the city to assess the potential in-house operation of the system, DDOT said. The study is expected to take a year to complete.

Union and community leaders are urging DDOT to hold off on the new contract and instead extend the existing one until a determination is made whether it is feasible for the agency to run the system.

Provisions in the contract could allow the District to extend the existing agreement if necessary to allow for an “orderly transition period,” in the event that another company is awarded the contract, DDOT spokesman Terry Owens said. That likely transition worries the workers and their supporters.

“Our immediate concern now is with the expiration of that contract. We want to make sure those workers keep those jobs,” said Barbara Kraft, head of the Social Action Committee at Temple Sinai and a member of the Washington Interfaith Network, which has been advocating against privatization and on behalf of the workers.

DDOT would “strongly encourage” a new contractor to hire the current experienced drivers, Owens said. But critics fear a new contractor would not be required to keep the current workforce or maintain the wages and benefits that the workers have earned in recent years.

Improvements but concerns

In 2016, First Transit and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764, which represents the workers, agreed to a new labor contract that increased wages for the workers and brought the bus drivers’ salaries on par with those of Metrobus operators. The city also agreed to increase the contract by $1 million to cover the raises.

Through that effort, the company also agreed to triple its contribution to the workers’ 401(k) plan, union leaders said. But despite the improvements, the employees have continued to voice concerns about work conditions, what they consider poor health-care choices, and fear of retaliation for speaking up about the poor conditions of the facilities and buses. The city has included funding in next year’s budget to improve the workers’ benefits and bring them more in line with those of Metrobus drivers.

City officials say those improvements, and a new era where DDOT would provide direct oversight of the contract instead of having Metro as the intermediary, would ensure better conditions for the workforce and improved services.

But workers and labor leaders say more needs to be done to end the recurring service problems the system has experienced in recent years, which audits have blamed on poor oversight and failures of the company to provide proper maintenance.

“Locking us into another five- to 10-year contract with the same or another for-profit corporation would be crazy,” driver Kewana Battle-Mason told a D.C. Council panel in December. “These contractors . . . all do the same thing. They underbid the contract to get the job. Then they start siphoning off money from key programs like maintenance, safety, administration. Running the buses and the employees into the ground to create a profit to send to their corporate headquarters.”

Poor oversight of the Circulator contract in recent years led to troubling safety and operational flaws, two audits commissioned by DDOT found. First Transit fell short in the maintenance of the buses, the audits found, and operators were driving buses with multiple critical safety defects.

Problems with an aging and inadequate fleet have made the system’s promise of a 10-minute wait for a bus impossible to meet in recent years.

But officials point to some progress. This month, the city rolled out 14 new electric buses, which are expected to improve service across all six routes. On-time performance is already up from 72 percent in fiscal 2017 to 78 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to DDOT.

Growth of privatization

Outsourcing public transit isn’t new in the region, but it is becoming a norm. Metro took over privately run bus operations in 1973, following a period plagued by scandals in the industry, including a 57-day labor strike during the streetcar years in 1955, and illegal fare increases in the 1960s and early ’70s.

In recent decades, as the region has grown and local jurisdictions have launched their own bus systems, they have turned back to private companies with the expertise. In the Washington region, Metrobus is run directly by a public authority. Montgomery County’s Ride On bus system is run by the county’s transportation department. But many suburban bus systems, including the Fairfax Connector, are contracted out to multinational corporations that specialize in transit operations.

Contracting can reduce costs because the contractor’s workforce typically is more flexible with more employees working in part-time positions and lower insurance costs, among other things.

But those savings have cost the workers. While transit jobs were once viewed as good public-sector­ jobs, many no longer have job security and wages are so low that operators cannot afford to live where they work, studies show.

Officials with the Washington Interfaith Network, which has been advocating against privatization of transit services, says outsourcing public transit has disproportionately affected people of color, as about 90 percent of transit workers in the region are black.

“When the jobs are privatized, the employees are paid less, retirement benefits are nonexistent and health care is abysmal,” Kraft said. “We want to preserve those good middle-class jobs with benefits.”

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the panel’s transportation committee and asked DDOT to study bringing the bus system under city control, said she understands the agency must move forward with a contract now but wants a plan for bringing D.C. Circulator in-house.

“I do think that we have a capacity to do that,” Cheh told Marootian at the February hearing. “I am not a big fan of privatization. . . . I think you get a bad result, and the people tend to be treated worse than if they were actually government” workers.

As the city continues to grow its transportation options outside of the regional transit system, Cheh said, it might be time to give serious consideration to creating a transit authority to oversee the Capital Bikeshare system, the D.C. Streetcar and the Circulator.

“I think we ought to be thinking concretely along those lines,” Cheh said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect first name for Barbara Kraft, the head of the Social Action Committee at Temple Sinai. The story also said that Ride On in Montgomery County is run by a contractor. The county transportation department runs the bus system.