An audit revealed significant safety defects, including malfunctioning brakes, on 95 percent of the 70 buses in the Washington, D.C. Circulator fleet, which transports five million riders per year.
The audit, released April 7, was conducted last August by the TRC, an independent transit consulting firm. It found 924 defects in total, averaging 22 per bus. The deficiencies identified included issues with safety equipment, broken headlights, malfunctioning brakes and low tire pressure.
According to the TRC’s standards, 120 of the total defects constituted serious problems that should have resulted in the buses being taken out of circulation for immediate repair.
The report attributed the problems to negligence by the District Department of Transportation, which owns the fleet, as well as by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which oversees the private contractor First Transit in operating the buses.
“The exceptionally high number of defects is an indication that First Transit, although proven highly capable at other transit locations, has fallen short in providing the DDOT fleet with adequate maintenance,” the audit reads. “Likewise, WMATA has not fully carried out its responsibilities.”
The TRC also criticized First Transit for failing to conduct the inspections and complete critical maintenance sooner, reporting that inspectors overseeing fleet maintenance were negligent in failing to look under buses, where multiple major defects could have been discovered.
“Virtually every transit agency understands that these replacements/rebuilds are needed at least once during the life of a transit bus,” the audit reads. “As such, First Transit should have anticipated this work.”
First Transit declined to comment to The Hoya, but company spokesman Jay Brock wrote in a statement to The Washington Post that the firm has worked since the audit was conducted in August to update the buses in the Circulator fleet. Brock cited the results of a second study completed in January, which were released April 8 following criticism stemming from the first audit. The second report found that 77 percent of the defects had been fixed.
“At the time of the audit, we were disappointed with results and the level of service was not what we expect of ourselves,” Brock wrote. “First Transit took immediate action and brought in an entirely new team to manage the operation. We also took action to fix the defects.”
However, the January audit found that each inspected bus still had as many as nine defects and that there was as shortage of vehicles that met the minimum safety requirements for service.
“[Thirty percent] of the total fleet of 67 buses was down for repair, leaving 47 buses available to meet a peak demand of 48 buses, which highlights the need for continued maintenance improvements,” the January audit reads. “Having 30 percent of the fleet down for repairs is unacceptable by any standard.”
The DDOT declined The Hoya’s requests for comment, but Department Director Leif Dormsjo defended his organization in a statement released April 8 which said that the department has implemented changes such as hiring more repair technicians and increasing the number of maintenance centers for buses.
“DDOT works with WMATA to ensure that any vehicles with safety defects are immediately pulled from service for repair,” Dormsjo wrote. “DDOT has seen substantial progress since our initial audit last August.”
Dormsjo said another audit will be conducted in May, stressing the organization’s commitment to safety.
“DDOT and WMATA will continue to use these audits as a tool to assess the condition of the fleet and ensure that all defects are identified and corrected as soon as possible,” Dormsjo wrote. “We have always emphasized to WMATA that safety is our first priority.”
Concurrently, First Transit is negotiating with drivers of the D.C. Circulator buses, who are represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764. The union is attempting to raise its members’ salaries from $18 an hour, claiming that low wages are increasing turnover among bus drivers that could lead to more safety problems.
In an interview with the DCist, Union trustee Sesil Rubain criticized the lack of response to the audit from both Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the DDOT.
“If Mayor Bowser and DDOT do not act on this information now, we’re going to have another preventable transit disaster in a city that’s rightfully sick of them,” Rubain said. “It’s outrageous that as they shake their fists about WMATA’s failures, Mayor Bowser’s administration ignores the dangerous situation that they know they have on their hands.”
The union conducted separate safety checks on 29 buses in March and claimed to find issues that would require 90 percent of buses to be pulled from service. The union found almost half the buses inspected had brake defects that could seriously injure passengers.
Aditya Pande (SFS ’18), a frequent user of the D.C. Circulator, said he was initially troubled by the audit results, but due to the Circulator’s low cost of $1 per trip, convenience factor and recent safety improvements, he is still willing to provide them business.
“They do need more oversight, but I don’t think it would stop me from taking them,” Pande said. “That’s because of the convenience factor. They’re highly, highly convenient. I’d still take them despite the findings.”
Jared Horne (COL ’19), who uses the Circulator to commute to work at a downtown D.C. restaurant, highlighted the need to address safety issues within the fleet.
“As a taxpayer that constantly uses public transportation this is very disheartening,” Horne said. “If I’m running late for work, I need the buses to run, so this is something that needs to get fixed.”
Kotryna Jukneviciute (COL ’18) echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the role public transportation plays in the lives of students.
“That’s absolutely absurd,” Jukneviciute said. “Students rely on the Circulator in general for transportation around D.C. for internships and everything. It’s critical. We pay a lot for our tuition and we’re residents of D.C. so we would expect that transportation in D.C. would be reliable for professional purposes as well as recreational reasons.”
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