“We drive the same streets, we stop at the same stops . . . and [Metrobus drivers] make $30 an hour and we make $20,” D.C. Circulator driver Flynn Burke, seen here at an April 19 rally, said. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

With seven years of experience driving public buses in the District, Flynn Burke could be making at least $10 more an hour if he were driving a Metrobus rather than his D.C. Circulator routes.

“We drive the same streets, we stop at the same stops picking up people, and they make $30 an hour and we make $20,” said Burke, a lifelong D.C. resident who earns $20.29 per hour driving for the six-route system. “Nobody at the Circulator can afford to buy a house in the District. . . . I rent, and I can barely afford rent.”

Circulator drivers are among the lowest-paid public transit operators in the Washington region, a wage gap that creates turnover in the operations but also a disparity that troubles labor and religious leaders pushing for parity.

Drivers come in at $16.56 an hour, train, stay two or three years, and often move on when they see it will take a decade to reach the top hourly pay of $23.47.

Chiefly, they go to Metro, with starting hourly wages of $19 that can rise in time to as much as $34, according to Metro and labor contracts.

A driver with Burke’s years in a Metro job would earn a base rate of $31.91 per hour.

Labor and religious leaders say the pay gap between Circulator and Metrobus drivers is troubling given that drivers for the two bus systems are providing the same level of service on the same clogged city roads.

“If you do the same job, for the same city, for the same people of Washington, why shouldn’t you be paid the same?” asked Sesil Rubain, the trustee with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764.

“The city got in the business of providing transportation, but there’s been a plan all along to go cheap,” he said. “So this system is one of the lowest paid of all the systems in the region. The buses are inferior, and the wages and benefits are inferior. People want it fixed. They wanted it fix yesterday.”

The union, which represents Circulator’s 189 drivers, has asked the city to allocate $3 million in the next budget to bring the drivers’ wages on par with those of Metrobus drivers. No commitments have been made, but some city leaders are working to find funds in next year’s budget.

At a District budget hearing this month, D.C. Department of Transportation Director Leif A. Dormsjo said the city would pay for the higher wages if the union negotiates the salaries with First Transit, the contractor that runs the D.C. Circulator.

D.C. Circulator drivers, union members and others take part in a rally in Columbus Circle on April 19. The drivers complained about low wages and unsafe work conditions. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“We need to improve the employee retention,” Dormsjo said. “I certainly don’t want to be a place that is just a training ground for Metro, Ride On or TheBus. . . . We want to have good, loyal operators who are happy and safe doing what they are doing because that just means our customers are going to get a higher quality of service.”

Dormsjo also said at the D.C. Council meeting that the Circulator wages should be akin to those in the region’s suburban bus systems, rather than comparable to the Metrobus scale.

While Circulator drivers top out at $23.47 an hour, drivers in suburban systems earn more, including, for example, a maximum of $31.60 at Montgomery County’s Ride On and about $27 at the Fairfax Connector, transportation officials in the two counties said. Top Circulator pay is higher than the $20.65 in Prince George’s TheBus system.

At a follow-up meeting with drivers and union leaders after the council hearing, Dormsjo promised to have a plan to improve salaries and work conditions for Circulator drivers, Rubain, the union trustee, said.

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

It could not immediately be determined whether Metro requires First Transit to meet any wage thresholds. It also is unclear why the city would be willing to pay for the wage increases rather than press First Transit to cover them.

At the April 8 budget hearing of the D.C. Council transportation committee, union leaders said First Transit has said in the negotiations that it does not have the revenue to increase the pay.

First Transit declined multiple requests for an interview on the wages through spokesman Jay Brock. DDOT spokesman Terry Owens referred all questions about the First Transit contract, including wage negotiations, to Metro. Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly declined requests for an interview to discuss the contract and Metro’s oversight.

“It is very disturbing to me to learn that people working for the Circulator are being paid substantially less than at Metro,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who is also chairman of Metro’s board of directors. “The Circulator is running almost comparable service as Metrobus. If you are doing the same work, the same everything, you ought to be paid the same.”

Evans said he plans to raise the disparity issue with his council colleagues.

Montgomery’s Ride On is the only suburban bus system in the region run directly by the county’s transportation agency. Most other local suburban bus networks, such as the D.C. Circulator, are outsourced to private companies, although with the Circulator, the role of Metro adds a management layer.

The District has Metro handle oversight. Metro, in turn, contracts for services with First Transit, which runs various bus systems in the United States, including one in the Prince William County area. It is under the same corporate umbrella as the intercity bus line Greyhound.

First Transit has run the Circulator since its launch more than 10 years ago and is on a $41.6 million, two-year contract that expires next year, according to Metro.

But after a decade in the District, the network of distinctive red buses, which provide 5.1 million trips a year, faces a series of challenges in addition to the issue of driver wages. Poor oversight has led to troubling safety and operational flaws, according to recent audits commissioned by DDOT.

An August report by the consulting firm Transit Resource Center found that First Transit had fallen short on maintenance, with some defects severe enough that buses should have been pulled from service until they were repaired. A follow-up inspection in January of a smaller sample of buses found improvements, yet lingering maintenance issues.

After the critical audits were made public this month, First Transit said in a statement that it was “disappointed” with the findings and had brought in a new team to manage the Circulator operation.

At a recent rally, Circulator drivers and union leaders blamed the system’s safety flaws on poor management and called on DDOT to take over the system as a way to address maintenance issues and income. “Better salaries would boost employee morale,” said Brian Hymes, 37, who has been driving for the Circulator for three years and makes $18.11 an hour.

“We get good customer reviews, but we don’t get the compensation,” he said. “We are only asking for what [is] deserved.”