The controversial company managing Asheville’s bus system almost gets another three years, as a process falls out amid withheld information, major questions, dueling committees and ongoing problems
Above: the aging SUV used to ferry transit passengers when the system runs out of buses due to maintenance problems.
Last year, both rider advocates and the transit workers union raised major issues about the management of the bus system. There was high turnover, buses were regularly late, some routes didn’t run at all due to a lack of functioning vehicles. In some cases drivers even had to get riders from place to place in an aging SUV.
These were tied, they asserted, to endemic mismanagement by First Transit, a Cincinatti, Ohio-based subsidiary of the British company FirstGroup. First Transit has overseen Asheville’s system since 2008. Due to a conflict between state and federal law the city of Asheville can’t directly deal with the Amalgamated Transit Union local, so it has to hire a management company to oversee the day-to-day operations of the system, for a fee.
The bus system transports thousands of locals per year to work, home, medical appointments, shopping and more. Many of the city’s low-income and working class populations rely on it to live their lives and a late or absent bus can potentially cost them their jobs. Last year, the ART system (for Asheville Redefines Transit) provided 1.4 million rides.
Rider advocates raised issues with First Transit as far back as 2014, but claimed that city staff had attributed the problems to a lack of resources or claimed they couldn’t get involved in personnel matters even when they affected overall performance. Drivers talked about massive issues with a lack of maintenance, poor treatment and high turnover because of bad management. A regional union official claimed the Asheville system was one of the worst cases he’d ever seen.
Meanwhile Mariate Echeverry, the city’s transit planning manager, asserted that the city didn’t track either safety or performance complaints and a First Transit spokesperson simply claimed that they weren’t aware of any issues with Asheville’s system.
Late last year, the city’s Multimodal Commission voted to give First Transit another year, but rider advocates and drivers took the issue directly to Asheville City Council and the city manager, who instead decided to put the management of the system up for bid, opening it up to new companies, through a Request for Proposal, or RFP, as it’s technically known.
After the months of wrangling and years of concerns, city transit staff and a committee that evaluated the bids recommended giving the contract back to First Transit again, allowing the controversial company to manage Asheville’s bus system for another three years. That process itself raised almost as many questions as the initial controversy, as city boards split in their opinions, members asserted they weren’t given enough information by transit staff to properly make decisions. Now, at senior city staff’s recommendation, Council may end up going back to the drawing board on who runs a key city service.
Back and forth
After the manager’s decision to put the contract up for bid, staff developed a new framework that would provide for additional management staff and the possibility of damages if the company failed to fulfill its end of the deal. This was supposedly so whatever company they decided on could be held more strictly to their contract, and such provisions were a long-running request of some rider advocates.
In November transit drivers warned Council about extending First Transit’s contract for the six months it would take to assess the different bids, claiming that even that period of time would result in the further deterioration of the transit system.
In February, according to a May 4 memo from Echeverry, staff met with five companies and two — First Transit and Ft. Worth-based McDonald Transit, which manages systems in Charlotte, Buncombe and elsewhere — submitted bids the next month. In early April an “evaluation committee” met to rate the different bids.
First Transit’s bid asserted that things with its management of the system had gone just fine:
First Transit is proud of our many locations across North America, but none more so than our ART contract, where our long-standing partnership has been built upon a foundation of solid performance and shared goals that have driven success. Together we have shared nearly 6 years of growth; providing nationwide transit management expertise with a local approach to achieve excellence in safety, security, and customer service
Even more controversially, First Transit’s response to the initial RFP included assertions that some rider advocates would later criticize as outright false. Despite years of documented tensions and major pushback against the company from the ATU, for example, the bid claimed that the current general manager, Rosann Christian, is “well versed in labor union processes and has a good relationship with the union leadership. She has also promoted good relations between the union and management.” A majority of the systems’ workers would, a few months later, sign a letter of no confidence in First Transit’s management.
The committee, whose decisions prove so pivotal to the entire fate of the transit system, was made up of two Multimodal Commission members, a Transit Committee member and a transit expert from the city of Raleigh. Echeverry and two other staff members observed the process and, as Echeverry later wrote
In their evaluations of the initial bids, three of the evaluation committee members scored McDonald more highly — some considerably higher — than First Transit and the remaining evaluator scored them the same. The total was an 81.75 rating for First Transit and a 90.25 for McDonald.
“The committee decided that they wanted to interview both companies as the proposals were comparable,” the report reads. “They considered McDonald was more innovative in some of their approaches to safety and efficiency, and the committee also stated that they were expecting more local context from First Transit and information about their experiences during these years operating ART.”
That interview was where the prospects for First Transit, according to the report, changed. Three of the four evaluators rated their performance on the interview, presentation and “management exercise” better than McDonald’s.
At only one point in this memo do the issues mentioned by riders and workers come up directly, with the following added to the assessment of First Transit.
One of the committee members asked First Transit about last year’s maintenance issues when seven buses were broken at the same time. The GM explained that it had been a one-time event, when seven buses broke. Fuel samples were taken and determined that the fuel was corrupt and had too much sodium, producing the failures. Since FT doesn’t control the fuel source it was not possible to determine what caused this.
The report recommended the city give First Transit another three years.
“After deliberation and based in First Transit qualifications, the evaluation process and the above observations, the committee indicated First Transit as the preferred vendor to initiate negotiations,” Echeverry writes. “Cost was not a consideration to make this determination.”
First Transit claimed it could handle the city’s transit system for a management fee of about $350,000 to $370,000 a year, McDonald that it would do so for around $450,000 to $476,000.
That recommendation to renew First Transit’s contract passed the city’s Multimodal Commission on May 25 with one member against, though the memo comparing the two companies’ bids was not, according to some board members, provided to them before the vote. The dissenting vote was Kim Roney, a newly appointed member and regular bus rider who had major issues with First Transit’s performance and also asserted that the contract should have gone to the Transit Committee, which is primarily composed of bus riders and considers issues with the system more directly, before multimodal took it up.
In the May 4 memo, which was not provided to members of either committee by staff during their first votes on the topic, Echeverry claimed that there would not be enough time to run the matter by transit. But that turned out to be incorrect. On June 7 no member of the Transit Committee would endorse First Transit’s bid, with McDonald receiving an endorsement from six members, with the three members abstaining, citing a lack of information. That discussion, as we’ll delve into shortly, revealed major disagreements over the conduct both of First Transit and city staff through the entire process.
At Council’s last meeting, on June 14, ATU President Diane Allen informed Council that 33 of 52 transit workers, including non-union as well as union employees, had signed a letter of no confidence in First Transit and Roney asserted she likewise had major concerns about the process.
ATU local Vice President Jim Palkovic, who’s worked as a driver in Asheville for three years, said that while staff has been assessing the bids, the issues with First Transit’s management have continued to mount.
“The bus system is just horribly mismanaged,” he told the Blade. “There’s just no accountability, I can’t believe the things that go on.”
“It seemed to be getting better for a little while, we had buses available,” he continued, talking to the Blade earlier this month. “Recently they’ve been missing routes again. A couple of weeks ago they missed a run up to the Social Security office.” South and East Asheville routes, he noted, had been particularly hard-hit.
Palkovic chalks it up to mismanagement rather than lack of resources and his remarks involve incidents that happened after the supposed fuel problems that Echeverry’s May 4 memo mentioned.
“They’ve got 17 routes to run, they’ve got 23 buses, they’ve got six spares, which is a lot,” he noted. “That’s a spare bus for every three routes, so there is really no excuse.”
He asserst that drivers that have worked for other transit systems repeatedly tell him that their experiences in Asheville are far worse.
The list didn’t end there, he said, and included worsening conditions at the transit station downtown and turnover. While earlier overtime issues “were mitigated somewhat,” in his observation that hasn’t changed the fact that “we’re still losing drivers.”
“Morale is not good, let’s put it that way.”
‘Excuses, excuses, excuses’
On June 7, despite Echeverry’s earlier assertion that they wouldn’t get to weigh in, the Transit Committee spent most of a two-hour meeting discussing First Transit’s proposal, and they came to some very different conclusions from the Multimodal Commission. Their debate gives more detail about the sharply different views of city staff, bus riders and activists about who should manage the system and how well the process worked.
At the meeting, Echeverry claimed that staff carefully assessed the two companies — First Transit and McDonald — and determined First Transit was still the best bet.
“Why?” committee member Valarie Macklin asked.
“When they went through the process, they ranked First Transit as the highest,” Echeverry replied.
“What did McDonald lack? I’m just trying to understand why,” Macklin followed up.
“We’d like a side-by-side comparison,” Roney said, and Macklin agreed.
“How are we supposed to rank them if we don’t have that?” committee member Lauren Noto asked.
“Well, we don’t do a side-by-side comparison,” Echeverry replied. By that point her memo to Ball, providing just such a comparison and details about the evaluation process, was written over a month before.
“Not for us?” Macklin asked.
“Yeah, so the way this goes is we put the RFP out and the evaluation committee gets together and based on their opinions” they assessed which company had the better bid according to criteria like planning, finances, community engagement, incentives, effectiveness and more. “Based on those criteria, the committee ranks the terms” or each deal, interviews representatives of the transit company and makes its recommendation.
“What specifically did First Transit have that McDonald didn’t?” Noto asked. Echeverry replied that it wasn’t any one factor, just the general overall ratings.
Under further questioning from Noto, Echeverry also noted that rather than a rating scale of objective criteria, the numbers were instead based on the evaluation committee members’ general feelings about how well a given company did. She noted that the new contract provided for more monitoring and management staff than before in an effort to improve performance and avoid some of the issues critics had raised.
Committee member Gary Ray said he was puzzled that Council and the city manager had chosen to put the contract out for bid instead of renewing it for First Transit, but now was going right back to the same company despite the many concerns about its conduct.
“I’m having some trouble getting on top of this,” Ray said. “If I’m going to be asked to vote to recommend something I’m going to have to understand why the decision was made.”
But despite several direct requests from committee members, Echeverry refused to provide a side-by-side comparison of the McDonald and First Transit bids at the meeting, even though she had sent one to Ball more than a month before.
Vicki Meath, director of Just Economics, a local non-profit that helped organize the main rider’s advocacy effort, the People’s Voice for Transportation Eqaulity, sharply criticized city staff and First Transit for what she asserted was a pattern of ignoring real concerns from the former and utter mismanagement from the latter.
“We’ve come over the past two years with significant concerns about First Transit,” Meath said. “We still hold those concerns today.”
“Anytime we brought up concerns about the logistics and operations of the system, the excuse was ‘well, there isn’t enough resources’ and anytime we brought up issues of personnel – patterns of mismanagement — not individual personnel, but patterns that have resulted in high turnover and a serious situation among the drivers, it’s been ‘well that’s between the union and First Transit.”
“As the city of Asheville, we’ve hired this management company to do two things, but we can’t hold them accountable for anything,” Meath continued, adding that there wasn’t even any solid data from First Transit on the extent of broken and late buses, but there were enough documented complaints that it was clear that the company had failed to fulfill even its current contract.
“I have no idea how we have not addressed this. Consistently all we hear are excuses, excuses, excuses.”
Noto added that Wilmington has had similar major issues with safety under First Transit’s management as well, including breaking buses.
“I have serious concerns,” Roney said, noting that complaints about management’s treatment of employees and performance reached back to August 2014 and included harassment of employees. “This list goes on and on.”
She also had major concerns that the bid process was flawed, with multimodal being “ill-informed” about the contract when the Transit Committee should have had a first look at it, and said she didn’t believe staff’s claim that there wasn’t enough time to have transit take a look at it first.
Committee member Calvin Allen warned city staff that if First Transit got another three years, “we might not even have a transit system, because of how many bus drivers I’ve heard are fed up with the management company.”
“They have expressed that they don’t want to work for them,” he said and in addition, he saw multiple problems mount with a lack of basic repairs. “I ride the bus regularly, I note things that need to be fixed and they’re not being fixed.”
“This summer during the maintenance debacle was some of the worst service I’ve ever seen in any transit system in my entire life and I’ve ridden small transit systems everywhere from Augusta to Ft. Wayne,” Noto said. “If I had not had an understanding boss, I would have lost my job because the management of the transit system was so bad. Buses were not going out, I was hours late to work, I chose to walk sometimes.”
Importantly, she added, “these are the exact same problems that the Wilmington system has been complaining about for months with First Transit.”
Committee member Edward Johnson asked Echeverry if the concerns expressed by the drivers and riders were taken seriously when assessing the new bids. She only replied that “during the evaluations there’s conversations about if the management will address situations, etc, etc.”
“I was on the committee to review the bids and Mariate advised me that I can’t speak up and say anything about anything going on, that’s why I’m not saying anything,” committee member Tom Tomlin added. He would later refuse to endorse First Transit, though also abstain from endorsing McDonald.
Macklin said that First Transit had some “noted problems” but that she had too little information to “trust McDonald to come in and save the day.” She hoped that going forward there were more ways to hold the next management company accountable for misconduct.
“If we as a city, as a body, can’t hold them accountable to get things done that are basic, then how are we going to hold another company accountable?”
Echeverry said the new contract would allow for damages from the company if it didn’t fulfill the contract, something they’d put in at Just Economics’ request.
But Chair Adam Charnacki noted that damages would be an extreme step and might be hard to use as a tool to correct basic problems.
No representative from First Transit, including its local manager, were present at the meeting. McDonald President Bob Babbitt spoke briefly, claiming that the company was ready to take over from First Transit and could improve service considerably.
“We have great respect for the process that went on, we also have some concerns, but this is not the right forum for that,” he said. “We will eventually be your transit provider and we will eventually improve your service with the same budget you had before. We’ve done this in four other markets with [First Transit].”
Roney noted that McDonald wasn’t unfamiliar with the area, as it manages the county’s Mountain Mobility service.
Charnacki wondered if anyone would make a motion to endorse continuing with First Transit. No one did. Roney, with Ray’s support, then moved to support McDonald.
Macklin said she wasn’t ready to support McDonald despite her issues with First Transit.
“I want a company that’s reliable for managing transit,” Roney added and Noto said that she was impressed with McDonald’s management of the Augusta system.
“There’s issues with maintenance, there’s issues with the safety meetings, there’s issues with turnover,” Roney said. “This is how we hold the company accountable.”
Macklin asked who holds the transit company accountable.
“The city does,” Echeverry replied.
“Is that something you think has been missing?” Macklin asked.
“Absolutely,” Roney replied, listing off problems with everything from personnel to state of the transit center bathrooms.
Assistant City Attorney Kelly Whitlock noted that the city would have the option to terminate the contract or sue for damages and Echeverry said the city could include more information about maintenance issues in its monthly reports ot he committee.
Noto asked if the city had done anything about what she saw as obvious violations of the contract.
“The city has not determined that they [First Transit] have been in violation of the contract,” Echeverry said.
In the end the resolution endorsing McDonald as the new management company passed with six members (Roney, Allen, Noto, Ray and Johnson were joined by member Charlton Owens) in support and Macklin, Tomlin and Charnacki abstaining.
Apparently, they weren’t alone, as the Multimodal Commission, in the words of the official staff report to Council, “revisited the topic at their next meeting and had concerns about its original vote.”
Month by month
Given all that, the official recommendation before Council tonight is this:
Concerns were raised about the RFP process. In response, the City Manager’s Office and City Attorney’s Office reviewed the RFP and selection process in consultation with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Specifically, the RFP process was unclear on what basis the award would be made and should be made based on the criteria specifically listed in RFP. Additionally, the interview scores should not have been completed separately but should have been combined with the proposal scores. In summary, the process utilized was not specifically stated in the RFP. This conclusion leads us to recommend rejection of all proposals. Additionally, based on consultation with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), we believe the most appropriate process to follow going forward is to redo the RFP process.
Meanwhile, if the city takes that recommendation, First Transit will continue in charge of the same bus system, overseen by the same staff, as another process for another decision grinds forward month by month.