D.C. Circulator buses were kept in service despite critical safety and operational defects, according to an audit of the city’s bus fleet.
The 45-page report commissioned by the D.C. Department of Transportation found many examples of neglected maintenance, including instances of engine defects because of oil leaks that were not repaired, and windows that wouldn’t open because they were not lubricated during routine inspections. There were defective mirrors, windshield washers and other equipment controlled by the driver, the inspection of 42 of the D.C. Circulator’s oldest buses showed.
The report by the consulting firm Transit Resource Center identified weaknesses in Metro and DDOT’s oversight of Transit First, the contractor that operates and maintains the D.C. Circulator fleet. The contractor fell short in the maintenance of the city’s distinctive red buses that provide more than 5.1 million trips annually on six lines, the authors of the report concluded.
The audit’s findings underscore failures on the handling of day-to-day wear-and-tear issues that were degrading the vehicle useful life.
Leif A. Dormsjo, the city’s top transportation official, said Friday that many of the flaws found in the August audit have been fixed. He said the District and Metro made “immediate interventions with the maintenance operations” after the report came out. A new audit this year by the same consultant found the defect rate has dropped by 80 percent, he said.
“This is going to be an ongoing reform because years of laissez faire oversight and neglect of the equipment have compromised the quality and in some cases the safety expectations that we have for the service,” Dormsjo said.
Some of the defects found in August would require immediate repair and not returning the vehicle to service until they were corrected, the report said. The findings of the inspection conducted last August were made public through news reports Thursday. The audit was also discussed Friday at a budget hearing of the D.C. Council transportation committee.
The inspection found a total of 924 defects, or an average of 22 defects per bus. Each bus had an average of nearly three safety equipment defects, many of them that should have been caught on routine bus safety inspections, according to the audit.
DDOT owns the buses, but Metro provides oversight of First Transit. The auditors said DDOT “needs to do a better job monitoring fleet condition and performance to ensure that its contractors are fully abiding by contract requirements to provide safe, reliable, and appealing bus service.”
“This number of defects is considered excessive,” the report says. An inspection of the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) fleet, for example, which provides local and commuter service also through a contract with First Transit, found only an average of three defects per bus.
A First Transit spokesman said Friday morning that the company was “disappointed” with the findings and said, “the level of service was not what we expect of ourselves.”
“First Transit took immediate action and brought in an entirely new team to manage the operation,” spokesman Jay Brock said in an emailed statement. He said the company took some action to fix the defects.
“A second audit was conducted in January of 2016 that showed significant improvement. There was a 77 percent decrease in the total number of reported defects,” he said. “We will continue to partner with DDOT and WMATA in regular communications to monitor progress.”
When asked about the audit’s finding that Metro has failed to provide proper oversight, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel referred questions to DDOT but said the two agencies are working on ways to improve Circulator service. “Those actions include regular meetings with the contractor’s senior management,” Stessel said.
At a D.C. Council budget hearing Friday, Metro Board Chairman and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), voiced concerned about the system becoming rundown and dangerous, and mirroring the poor maintenance that has brought the Metro system to a worrisome state of disrepair.
“I don’t want the Circulator to end up being Metro,” Evans said. “Would you put your child on that Circulator bus knowing what we know? And if that is the question we have to fix it. We got to stop fooling around with this stuff.”
Dormsjo said since the audit came out, DDOT and Metro have taken steps to ensure pre-trip inspections are done consistently, more qualified technicians have been hired and that records management is better.
The authors of the report, however, found no structural issues, the chassis were in good shape and the fluids management program was good.
Dormsjo, who ordered the audit after customers, drivers and business leaders voiced concern about the decline and reliability for the Circulator, said he wasn’t surprised with the findings. He said there are financial penalties for the contractors for failing to keep up with the contract requirements, but he couldn’t provide details if any had been administered.
“We had seen some of the warning signs that things weren’t being managed properly,” he said. But, he said, riders should be reassured that the vehicles on the road are safe. “We have taken proactive steps to improve the maintenance procedures and the result of that is a safer service.”
The audit evaluated 49 of the 67 Circulator buses, but physically inspected only 42. They are the older buses in the fleet and include 2003 and 2004 models that were put in service when D.C. Circulator launched in 2005, and some 2009 models that were put in service in 2009 and 2010.
Some of the most problematic passenger safety problems found include emergency exit windows too difficult to open or close. In the event of a bus emergency, it would present a problem for riders to exit through a window. Several windows were also missing “emergency exit” signage. Some buses had damaged “watch your step” signage, inoperative sensors to prevent passengers from being caught on doors, and insecure or expired fire extinguishers.
There were 124 defects on engine and engine compartments, many of which were caused by oil leaks that had not been repaired.
Driver control defects included inoperative switches, shades, mirrors, windshield washers, and other defective equipment controlled by the driver. The audit questions whether drivers are effectively reporting those problems and whether the company follows up to rectify the defects.
In addition, all of the buses “were dirty inside and out, and would greatly benefit from a thorough, detailed cleaning,” the audit said. “Dirty buses could be interpreted by passengers that the agency does not value their patronage.”
Each bus that was inspected had an average of 8.2 defects of cosmetic nature, according to the report.
“Cosmetic defects such as body damage, peeling graphics, and damaged seats and flooring, while not critical to the daily operation of the bus from a mechanical standpoint, help to create a negative passenger experience,” the audit said.
The report concludes that the “exceptionally high number of defects” suggests that First Transit “has fallen short in providing the DDOT fleet with adequate maintenance,” and Metro “has not fully carried out its responsibilities to provide sufficient oversight of First Transit.”
The auditors also found cramped conditions at the facility where buses are kept and maintained, which could explain some exterior damage to the buses. Dormsjo said DDOT and Metro are working to find a facility with enough space for the Circulator buses workshop.
Sesil Rubain, an organizer with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764, which represents D.C. Circulator workers, told members of the D.C. Council at the Friday hearing that safety is a major concern for the members. The union’s own survey of the city buses found that 90 percent of the fleet surveyed had defects, he said.
“Why is the Circulator held to a lower standard?” he asked, and inquired about the steps that are being taken to address the flaws and reassure the safety of riders and workers.