Reliability problems with the D.C. Circulator and planning and construction shortfalls of the city’s streetcar system are examples of why the District and Metro should be wary of privatizing more services, the transit agency’s union said Tuesday.
Although the District Department of Transportation owns the Circulator buses and oversees the D.C. streetcar, Amalgamated Transit Union International says there’s an implicit warning for Metro.
“Fix the service you have; take responsibility for the quality of service you have,” said Michael McCall-Delgado, a strategic researcher at ATU International and author of a new report, “Fool D.C. Twice.”
“You should understand that we’ve attempted this before, and doubling down on failed initiatives is not the way to move forward,” McCall-Delgado said.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has said he wants to use outside contractors for more services. The push for more privatization is included in Wiedefeld’s extensive blueprint for saving the system, which he released last month. The union is opposed to the idea.
The union report holds the District partially responsible for the decline of the region’s transit system, saying that instead of investing in Metro, local leaders pushed seemingly “hip” and “premium ridership” projects to attract millennials to the city.
“D.C., like its neighbors in Virginia and Maryland, has contributed to the neglect of [Metro], which still serves as the region’s central nervous system,” the union says in its report. “Instead of championing a new era of regionalism and public transit policy, the District has focused on developing a parallel, locally controlled, privately-operated transit system that benefits its newer and wealthier residents and the businesses and institutions that employ and serve them.”
A city-commissioned audit last year found that Circulator buses were kept in service despite critical safety and operational defects. The report identified weaknesses in Metro’s and DDOT’s oversight of the contractor that operates and maintains the bus fleet.
The problem-plagued Streetcar took more than a decade and $200 million to build and resulted in a 2.2-mile line that is far smaller than originally envisioned.
DDOT said it had not seen the report. “However, providing safe, efficient and reliable transit services for the District of Columbia is an essential part of our mission at DDOT,” agency spokesman Terry Owens said in a statement. “We continuously evaluate our transit services to determine where improvements can be made.”
Transit officials also rejected the idea that two problematic programs could be used as a wholesale indictment of privatization.
“We would caution against condemning all contracting because of a concern over one or two examples,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said in a statement. “The fact is Metro has many contractors who perform well. In the interest of maximizing efficiency while maintaining or enhancing service, the GM’s plan calls for consideration of additional private sector support for Metro where it makes sense.”
ATU, which represents more than 9,000 Metro employees through its Local 689 chapter, has rejected Wiedefeld’s shift toward privatization, including a proposal that would use private contractors to fill station manager or track inspection jobs on the second phase of the Silver Line. Contractors could also be used to operate such facilities as new bus garages. Separately, Metro has nearly doubled its spending on private contractors over the past two years.
In its report, however, the union takes D.C. officials to task for failing to hold contractors accountable for construction, planning and service failures. The report highlights how the Circulator, operated by Cincinnati-based First Transit, has been beset by maintenance problems for years “while avoiding government oversight,” according to the union.
Circulator buses have a notoriously poor reliability record, with the 2016 audit finding an average of 22 defects per bus. Many of the defects — nearly three per bus — were tied to safety equipment and should have been caught during routine inspections, the audit said. And the problems have persisted: A report this week from WAMU said reliability issues have left the Circulator up to 10 buses short of its quota when buses depart its lots each day.
“With regard to Circulator, DDOT and [Metro] are working cooperatively to improve the performance of this particular contract,” Metro said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the union said, poor planning and construction failures from corner-cutting contractors led the District to build what it called “The Train to Nowhere for No One,” the 2.2-mile streetcar.
The “desire to deliver a public good at bargain prices led DDOT to launch a service that was poorly designed, poorly managed, wildly expensive, and publicly disdained before the first car ran down the track,” the report says.
The streetcar, launched in February 2016, hit a milestone million riders in March, the same month it hit a monthly record for passengers at 93,909, according to the DDOT website. The service, however, still is not charging fares.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans acknowledged the shortcomings of the District’s public-private transit partnerships in an interview Tuesday, but he said the success of such ventures should be evaluated on a “case-by-case” basis. He wasn’t shy about admitting, however, that government oversight has fallen short in some cases.
“If Metro is going to look at privatizing something, I would have to be convinced it’s going to save us money in the short and long term and we have the oversight in place,” said Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member.
Still, the conservative-leaning American Action Forum, which is pushing the federal government to let Metro privatize operations and buy equipment from foreign suppliers to save money, says the union’s report is too limited in scope to draw broad conclusions about privatization.
“They’re saying that [Metro] should have been the entity to expand and take on those roles,” said Philip Rossetti, a data analyst at the forum. “So the question is, would [Metro’s] performance have been better when we have all the problems we have now? That’s the counterfactual that’s missing from this analysis, and it’s one that’s impossible to prove.”