RATP Dev will run day-to-day operations of the six-route bus system, taking over from First Transit, which has run the Circulator since its inception in 2005.
The D.C. Department of Transportation’s decision to replace First Transit, which was one of three bidders, comes after years of turmoil for the system, during which multiple audits found that the company had failed to follow basic maintenance procedures. When the new contract goes into effect this fall, DDOT will take over management from Metro, which has been providing contract oversight. It will be the first time that DDOT, which funds the Circulator, will have direct control over the contract.
City transportation officials say the transition will ensure better oversight and build on efforts to improve service, including the purchase of 40 new buses this year.
“DDOT has worked proactively to improve the performance of the D.C. Circulator as well as the customer experience,” DDOT Director Jeff Marootian said in a statement. “Assuming management oversight is the next major step of continuing our efforts to deliver quality service and at the same time improve opportunities for D.C. Circulator personnel.”
However, the District’s decision to replace one multinational corporation with another to run the Circulator was criticized by labor and civic leaders who have urged the city to end the private operation of the publicly funded service. Groups, including city religious leaders, have been on a campaign for the municipalization of the transit operations to bring the transit jobs to the public sector.
“This is a race to the bottom,” said the Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of Metropolitan AME and a member of the Washington Interfaith Network, which has been advocating against privatization and on behalf of workers. “Our public officials must stand up to defend these mostly black public servants from greed and exploitation at the hands of multinational corporations.”
In recent months, workers and their supporters had urged the city to delay awarding the operations contract until a study was done to determine how much it would cost for the city to run it. DDOT has partnered with the Eno Center for Transportation to assess the potential for in-house operation of the system, but that study is expected to take a year to complete. A two-year-old report from former DDOT director Leif Dormsjo estimated that it could cost $6 million more a year to run the system in-house.
RATP Dev taking over the maintenance of the 72-bus fleet reduces the possibility of transitioning the services to the public sector. The agreement has the option to be renewed for three five-year periods, DDOT officials said. RATP Dev has managed and operated transit systems throughout the United States since 1972 and is in 40 cities and communities throughout North America. It is a rising competitor to First Transit, which runs hundreds of transit systems across North America and handles a portion of the Washington region’s paratransit services known as MetroAccess.
The transition to a new contractor would be a period of uncertainty for the more than 200 Circulator workers, a vast majority of them drivers. The new contract does not require RATP Dev to hire the existing workforce, although city officials have said they “strongly encourage” the new contractor to keep the experienced workers.
Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union International,called DDOT’s contract choice “an outrageous betrayal of D.C. residents” and criticized Mayor Muriel E. Bower (D) for dismissing calls to end the privatization of the transit operations. Several other small regional bus systems are also contracted out.
Circulator drivers have complained that they drive on the same streets as Metrobus drivers but earn much less and have fewer benefits. The pay scale for the contracted-out transit jobs is lower than that of the Metro system.
“Instead of offering these 200 mostly African American workers a pathway to the middle class like she promised, Mayor Bowser is putting them on a pathway to poverty. We’ve received no commitment that Circulator workers will have their jobs by the end of the summer or that their hard-won labor agreement will be honored by RATP,” Hanley said.
“As we know from privatized services like MetroAccess, there’s a direct connection between the way workers are treated and the quality of the service. So this is bad news for everyone who works in or rides transit in Washington,” he said.
Labor leaders say workers worry not only about whether the contractor will hire them but also if they will keep their seniority. They also wonder if the company will honor a labor agreement reached with First Transit last year.
Sam Zimbabwe, chief project delivery officer for DDOT, said RATP Dev’s practice is to bring over the employees of an incumbent contractor, although all workers will be subjected to background checks and training. He said the workers will be able to maintain their seniority. He also said the new contract will be subject to wage and benefits requirements and will honor the existing collective-bargaining agreement that expires March 31, 2019.
The D.C. Council has 45 days to approve the $140 million contract that officials say includes funding for operational maintenance and performance incentives.
As part of that transition, the city will begin to negotiate the takeover of a lease of the garage where First Transit operates, on 17th Street NE.