Breaking buses

by David Forbes September 24, 2015

From missed stops to buses in disrepair and low morale, drivers and local activists assert the company in charge of managing Asheville’s transit system is failing

Above: The SUV that, according to multiple drivers, transported some Asheville transit system riders in recent weeks because the system had a critical lack of buses.

Update: On Sept. 29, city officials announced they would put the contract to manage the transit system up for bid, opening it to different companies.

For 10 years Diane Allen has driven bus riders around the streets of Asheville. But over the past three years the veteran bus driver and president of ATU Local 128, has seen things — in many ways — grow steadily worse.

“We see routes being missed, not even going out because of a a lack of buses,” she tells the Blade. “Some occasions it’s a lack of manpower: we don’t have enough operators to drive the buses. There have been a few occasions where an actual transit dispatcher has had to leave the window at the transit center to go drive a bus because of the lack of manpower.”

Just during this month, Allen says, she’s had to pick up people from a major route in an aging SUV that only holds three people. Other bus drivers, both in emails and at a recent meeting, tell similar stories.

“There’s not the employees there to perform the maintenance on a daily basis,” Allen says. “Minor things, yes, but when things are major they’re having to be contracted out to other states or someone from out of state has to come in and work on the buses. We’re not equipped here to diagnose what’s wrong with the buses.”

According to Allen, the problem boils down to the management company, First Transit, which she asserts has mismanaged the system to the point that it’s dysfunctional. Due to a conflict between state and federal laws, the city has to hire an outside company to manage the system and negotiate with the local union. However, Allen says that the concerns go beyond individual personnel issues to problems that put riders and the system as a whole at risk.

She’s not alone. Local transit activists have raised concerns for over a year in meetings with city staff.

The official word from transit system representatives is that any problems haven’t caused any significant issues (First Transit, so far, is staying mum). But drivers tell stories of a strapped bus system, overworked drivers, rapid turnover, entire missed routes and incredibly low morale.

Asheville’s transit system is a key part of how thousands of Ashevillians, especially low-income and working class residents, get around. Just four years ago, it was given a rebrand as the ART or “Asheville Redefines Transit” and local government has devoted resources to extending service (to Sundays and holidays, for example) and changing routes in an attempt to increase efficiency.

But a regional union official who deals with systems throughout the region and has dealt with Asheville’s bus system for 15 years through multiple management companies says that despite the marketing, the current state of our city’s system is in fact worse than many others of a similar size.

Now, the city has the option to push First Transit’s contract up for bid, with union officials and activists pushing for the city to do so in an effort to improve what they see as dire issues. But at a recent city committee meeting, officials proved somewhat reluctant, uncertain if the concerns were due to the company or a lack of resources. They’ve recommended giving the company another year, but the final decision is up to City manager Gary Jackson.

The gatekeepers

First Transit is a Cincinatti, Ohio-based subsidiary of FirstGroup, a large British transportation company. It operates in over 200 cities throughout the U.S.

Asheville also isn’t the only city where drivers are at odds with them. Wilmington drivers have said they may strike by Oct. 1, not due to problems with pay, but because they claim issues with bus breakdowns, route delays and safety aren’t addressed by the company.

How the company came to manage (or mismanage, depending on whom you ask) our city’s system is due to a contradiction between federal and state law. Asheville’s transit drivers, like those in many other cities, are unionized as part of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Under federal law, their rights to collectively bargain with their employers are protected. A local government can’t act to break or disband their union.

However, North Carolina’s state laws are among the most anti-union in the country. They forbid any local government from collectively bargaining with a union.

So, to get around that impasse, First Transit is paid $272,000 a year to manage the system. Specifically, according to its contract, to “effectively, economically, efficiently and safely operate” matters “in accordance with all policies, performance objectives and service standards which may be established from time to time by the City, in order to achieve and maintain a quality System.”

While the transit budget is approved by the city and the funds and routes overseen by city staff, it’s First Transit who deals not just with personnel issues, but puts in requests for maintenance, fuel or repairs, which the city then pays for out of its coffers.

The city of Asheville’s government chose First Transit has managed the system since 2008. Its latest contract ran from June 12, 2012 to the end of 2014.

In 2014, the People’s Voice for Transportation Equality, a group of riders concerned about the effectiveness of the system, rallied and put forward an agenda for reform, asserting that in many cases the system didn’t provide sufficient service to those who needed it most. One of the points on that agenda was accountability from the transit management company. Through developing that process, members of the group started talking to drivers and became concerned about the state of the system.

Last September, ATU local drivers and representatives of Just Economics and the People’s Voice group met with Transportation Director Ken Putnam and Transportation Planning Manager Mariate Echeverry, asking the city to issue to put the matter up for bid — a Request for Proposal in official jargon — rather than renew First Transit’s contract, citing multiple concerns. An RFP, as it’s known, would allow the city to look at the terms of its contract with a management company and open up the possibility of another taking over or to the city changing its practices for holding a company accountable.

“We have concerns around how the daily operations and how problems are communicated to the city, the transit committee and the riders,” Vicki Meath, Just Economics’ director, says. “We just want to make sure there’s some consistency and accountability so there are ways we as community members can hold our public officials accountable.”

At the time the drivers presented city staff with a lengthy list of concerns, including workplace problems ranging from sexual harassment to intimidation and a lack of training, along with a list of operational concerns including poor supervision, inadequate maintenance and insufficient training for new drivers.


A list of concerns about the safety and operation of the Asheville transit system, put forward by drivers in September 2014. Despite these concerns, city staff chose to extend the management company’s contract.

“We brought the riders and drivers to the table with staff to talk about these concerns and ask that they use the RFP process as a way to hold First Transit accountable,” Meath remembers.

On Oct. 7, Putnam sent a letter to Meath noting that dealing with these issues and any concerns the drivers had was First Transit’s responsibility, and that he had forwarded the concern on to them.

In a letter she sent in reply, Meath asserted that the issues affected the whole system, and “it is our belief that First Transit is not doing what the City has hired them to do by maintaining a safe and quality transit system.”

Meath’s letter continues:

Our interest in bringing along members of ATU Local 128 to our meeting with you was not in any way a request for you to intervene directly in grievances between First Transit and the union, but rather to provide examples and evidence of how First Transit is not upholding their contracted responsibilities. The bus drivers happen to be the face of the system, best able to provide examples of mismanagement.

The issues, she wrote, affected riders too:

Many of the issues addressed are related to the safety of the riders and go well beyond a grievance between the union and the management company. As City residents, we are also interested to know who holds the liability if an accident occurs due to an oversight or mismanagement by First Transit? We believe that many of the complaints that we listed are examples of how First Transit’s management practices are jeopardizing the safety of the riders and the ART system as a whole.

But despite those concerns, staff decided to renew First Transit’s contract, rather than put it up for public consideration.

Coming up short

In the ensuing year, Allen claims, issues of safety, missed routes and breakdowns have not only failed to improve, they’ve worsened.

“For three days they’ve had to use a mobile unit that with a driver will only hold three passengers,” she recalls and sometimes she’s driven it herself. “It’s not ADA compliant. It’s got no AC. I actually had to leave a passenger at a stop” and a dispatcher had to come pick them up because of a lack of space.

That, she says, leaves drivers in a bind “if it’s raining and there’s someone in a wheelchair.” Specifically, she claims that the problems have hit hard on the S2 and 170 routes. The former includes the Social Security Administration office.

“There’s a lot of lateness, mis-trips. A lot of this is the accountability of First Transit in not keeping employees. This is part of the contract with the city, the retention and hiring of employees.” Despite the contract’s specifications, she says, the system lacks two essential mechanics and over the last two years has seen almost 50 percent turnover, a problem she attributes to fatigue, pressure to work overtime and low morale.

“At one point we were 12 drivers short,” Allen recalls, and it takes time to take new trainees to navigate Asheville’s roads. “When you’re a bus driver and you know these people are out there waiting on you, you feel obligated to work overtime.”

“The scheduling on both ends is tight, almost impossible to meet,” she continues. “Even when the city has given First Transit the new routes, with the new master plan, it’s almost a set-up to fail. It’s almost impossible to keep these routes on time. With the amount of people we have, the traffic, the growth of Asheville.”

She praises the additional holiday and Sunday service the city’s as a boon to the public, but says that First Transit and the city didn’t adequately prepare for the challenges posed by the extra service, leaving the drivers in a bind in an already-mismanaged system.

“Our main concern as drivers is that we’re leaving passengers behind and that’s unfair to them,” she says. “They need this. They’re losing jobs, they can’t get their kids to daycare, they can’t get to their daughters’ appointments.”

She claims that she and other drivers have voiced their concerns to city staff in regular meetings, but haven’t seen any improvement. Some buses still have no air conditioning, squeaky brakes and windows that won’t open.

“They say ‘we’ll look into it,’” but adds that “I don’t get anything solved. There’s a lack of accountability.”

Emails from another driver tell a similar story. On a recent Friday, for example, the emails talk about having to use the SUV on the S2 route (in the process having to skip several stops entirely) and that in the evening riders at the transit station were asking why buses on some east, north, west and south Asheville routes were running so far behind. At the end of that driver’s shift, they claimed that there were nine buses in repair. In an email about the next day, they claim that 10 buses were out of commission and the SUV was again used on the S2 route, once again missing several stops.

“It’s not that the drivers are being selfish or greedy. We are concerned,” Allen says. “We have built a relationship with these passengers and they trust us to be there. If we have a bus, we’re going to be there.”

‘Fundamentally a dysfunctional transit system’

ATU Vice President Gary Rauen deals with transit systems around the region, and his assessment of the state of Asheville’s is grim.

“When you look at the city of Asheville, it ranks in these top 10 lists as one of the nicest places to live, when you look at tourists it’s in the top 10 percent of places to visit,” Rauen tells the Blade. “So the transit system should really be a model of what the city reflects. But when you look at First Transit in Asheville, the way it’s being managed, it’s in in the bottom quarter” when compared to similar cities.

He bases that assessment on the amount of complaints, problems with dependable service, delayed service and breakdowns. “It falls way short of what the citizens of Asheville, and I think even the leaders in the community, expect their city to reflect.”

“You’ve got people who are standing out on the street corner, waiting for a bus, and that bus is never coming. Nobody tells them ‘hey the bus is broken down, we don’t have adequate replacement buses.”

“It’s really, fundamentally a dysfunctional transit system,” he asserts and while he’s dealt with Asheville’s system since 2000, through it’s share of ups and downs, “I don’t recall that the service was as interrupted as it is today.”

He places the blame on First Transit, noting the similar woes elsewhere.

“You could look at the trouble going on right now in Wilmington and they’re exactly the same concerns going on in Asheville.”

The problems extend to the level of monitoring and transparency, he claims.

“Look at the number of general managers over the last five years,” Rauen says. “I don’t know if anybody from the city or the Council actually looks at who’s running our system.”

City staff should monitor the complaints directly, he said, but instead “some complaints go to the city, but 90 percent go through First Transit and never get reported to the city.”

He says he sees no reason for the city to not launch an open search. “What would it hurt if the City Council voted to put out an RFP? You’d have the opportunity to interview managers of other systems. There’s a couple companies out there that provide really good service, monitor it a whole lot better than I think First Transit does and it will at least give them the opportunity to at least try.”

The problems don’t stop there, Rauen claims. There are federal grants — known as 13C after the section of federal law that governs them — that cities can apply for to get additional assistance for their transit systems.

But in Asheville’s case, he says that to his knowledge “every grant that they could apply for has not been applied for.”

“Federal funding that could have been applied for has not been applied for. I don’t know, based on the current RFP, if that’s First Transit’s responsibility or the city of Asheville’s responsibility. Regardless of who it is, the recommendation for additional funding for additional buses, replacement parts, bus shelters, those recommendations should be part of whoever’s managing the system.”

Under federal law every one of those grant applications has to go through the ATU’s office. So far, Rauen claims, none have and “we have a monitoring system where we look at every city in the country that applies for these federal grants.”

“The citizens deserve a city transit system that equals the level of commitment the City Council has put in to make Asheville the city that they want it be,” he adds.

Looking for answers

As mentioned previously, First Transit failed to respond to requests for comment on the issues raised by the ATU drivers and activists. The Blade also reached out to city staff in charge of overseeing the transit system to respond.

“First Transit continue to meet the requirements of that contract, they have been performing the required maintenance, currently they’ve brought in technicians to analyze the buses that are not functioning,” Joey Robison, a spokesperson for the city’s transportation and multimodal efforts, says. “At this point they’re fulfilling their contract with us and doing what needs to be done. My understanding is that it has not yet interrupted transit service. Transit service is still going strong.”

What about the drivers’ claims that so many buses were out of commission tha the SUV had to pick some riders up?

“I can’t speak to that,” Robison replied. “All I know about that is that we have not had transit service interrupted at this point.”

What about the lack of mechanics hindering service?

“That is First Transit, they work with all the personnel issues.”

If concerns are brought up about the operation of the system or First Transit’s management affecting those, how does the city deal with it?

“That would go to First Transit, First Transit would be the one to work directly on that. We have a contract with First Transit and they manage the process. As long as they’re meeting the contract with us, they’re managing the rest of their business.”

Were concerns about First Transit’s management brought up in the past?

“Not that I’m aware of.”

And those federal grants that ATU officials asserted that Asheville’s system isn’t applying for?

“I’m not familiar with any of that.”

On Sept. 23, Robison claimed that five buses were out of commission. Today, according to a follow-up email, the number was down to three.

Not quite yet

On Sept. 23, Asheville’s Multimodal Transportation Commission met to discuss the issue, with a looming deadline of Oct. 1 to determine whether or not First Transit would see its contract renewed or if the city would issue an RFP and possibly find another company. The commission would make a recommendation, before the city manager would make the final decision.

The issue dominated the meeting. Echeverry first made a presentation, explaining the contradictions between state and federal law that necessitated the hiring of First Transit, the terms of the contract (noting, for example, that it had stricter safety requirements than the previous deal with the company) and how it worked.

“The general manager can make requests for parts, maintenance or fuel, they handle salaries, administration, training,” Echeverry said, adding that the current general manager had arrived while the current budget was being crafted and thus had to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing situation.

She also claimed that while First Transit handled many issues, there was regular communication about maintenance issues, if equipment wasn’t working and monthly meetings between drivers, city staff and First Transit dealt with many of these topics.

She concluded that the city has three options: to decide to release an RFP by January of next year, with the new contract (and possibly company) in place by July, to extend the contract with First Transit for a year while the city issues an RFP by July and has a new contract in place by January 2017 or simply to extend First Transit’s contract for two more years “if performance continues as it is” with an RFP to follow in March 2017 and a new contract beginning at the start of 2018.

Neither General Manager Rosann Christian or any other representative of First Transit was at the meeting.

After Echeverry’s presentation, Meath made her own, calling on the city to use the RFP process to improve accountability, citing a “pattern of mismanagement.”

“With concerns with the management company we didn’t know how to move forward, we met with city staff to request they issue an RFP and city staff did not,” she said. “We are asking for an adequate and appropriate process by the city to review whether First Transit is continuing to act in the best interest of the riders, drivers and the city of Asheville.”

An RFP, Meath said, would open the terms of a new contract and the possibility of a new company to public discussion and accountability as “we’re kind of unclear how we hold a contractor accountable.” She reiterated that their concerns were about the contract between the city and First Transit, not the separate contract between the ATU and the company. Like the union, they shared the concerns about maintenance, supervision, transparency and a lack of accessing resources like the federal 13c grants.

Transit Committee Chair (and Asheville City Council candidate) Julie Mayfield had heard about the concerns at an earlier meeting of that group, and now shared them with the larger board. In her mind, the question came down to whether the issues were a lack of resources or a problem with mismanagement.

“If they had another $2 million would we be having this conversation or is it that First Transit just isn’t interested in driver or rider happiness and it doesn’t matter how much they have,” Mayfield said. “Are we dealing with primarily legacy issues from previous management approaches that weren’t what they should have been and if we gave the current general manager enough time would she be able to rally the troops and make things better?”

Allen also reiterated her concerns.

“Buses aren’t running, not being equipped with the mechanics to fix these buses to have them ready to go, routes not going out at all, for hours on end, passengers wondering where their bus is at,” she told the commission of the difficulties they have. “We’ve had buses out there with brake issues or a check engine light buzzing in your ear. How is that safe?”

Commission members asked about the amount of overtime and Allen replied that in one case, she knew a driver who worked 56 hours overtime in a two week period on top of her two 40-hour work weeks so “yes, we’re working over a lot. Your body’s fatigued, you’re tired. That’s a safety issue as well. We were seeing some changes, but things have gotten worse. Morale is really low.”

She noted the pay is relatively good, but the management issues cause high turnover nonetheless.

Later, Commission member John Ridout noted that there was generally a shortage of heavy-duty diesel mechanics, including in private industry, so that particular difficulty might be linked to a larger issue.

Bruce Emory, the commission’s vice chair, later noted that he had asked recently and been told that seven buses were out of commission, a fact he’d found worrisome.

Allen claimed the issue was “First Transit just simply doesn’t like to spend the money” to keep the system in adequate working order.

“This is a patten of mismanagement,” Meath emphasized. “We hired them to do this.”

Echeverry replied that “any time there are issues, the union has the option to go through arbitration, to go through a grievance process.”

“We have no say so in that agreement whatsoever,” Assistant City Attorney Martha McGlohon said.

As for the concerns previously raised in 2014 about the bus system’s safety and operations, McGlohon claimed that “staff addressed those concerns, but perhaps not in accordance with what was expected,” referring to the letter from Putnam asserting that he’d notified First Transit of the issues.

“We were pointing out patterns of mismanagement and we got back the response ‘we can’t deal with personnel matters,’” Meath said, so they decided to try to work through the city’s process and go to the city’s commissions. “Where do we get answers if the management company has no accountability to the public and the city is saying ‘we can’t respond to anything that’s personnel-related, even though we hire them to manage our personnel.’”

McGlohon claimed that when Christian was brought on board as general manager earlier this year, she’d sought to fix the overtime problem and the city was aware of that.

“If there are issues of any magnitude, those are brought to the general manager’s attention,” she said, and Echeverry added that the manager had also told the city staff that “the needs can’t be filled with the current budget” when it came to meeting the system’s current problems.

She later noted that Asheville’s system had the most spare buses in the state, but a transit driver replied from the crowd that most of them don’t work.

“It’s not just one little thing or another little thing that’s being tweaked here and there, there are real examples of gross negligence that are putting the citizens of this city at risk on a daily basis,” Amy Cantrell, who works with the People’s Voice transit group and Just Economics, said. She added that the list of concerns have only grown in the year since they met with city staff.

“I don’t know how much stronger we can be about this: there are huge safety concerns.”

David Webb, a 26-year veteran driver, said he was only one of three drivers with more than 10 years experience left in the whole system, that he’d been told to recently drive a bus despite it having a major fuel leak.

“We’ve got drivers that don’t feel comfortable with the company,” he said. “For two days we ran a route in a Ford Explorer because we didn’t have buses. That’s getting pretty bad.”

Asked by the commission, Webb noted that he’d dealt with three management companies and under others, “we’d had the employees to get the job done and we had the buses and equipment to get the job done.”

He added that despite a year’s notice before introducing Sunday service, First Transit failed to train or hire more drivers to meet the need.

After those concerns were raised, Mayfield noted that the Transit Committee had also expressed a concern but lacked a quorum to make a formal recommendation.

“Where we got to was acknowledging the concerns,” she said. “Putting them together was impactful: the consensus was that we share the concerns. We couldn’t take a vote, but we agreed that there were a lot of concerns and issuing an RFP might in fact be a good step.”

Emory noted that he had concerns about the fastest option for launching the RFP, citing that “we’d still be stuck with First Transit for six months.” He suggested extending the contract for another year before issuing an RFP while “issuing some really strict goals” for the company and giving the new manager “a little more time to turn things around.”

“We have tried to pair the services with the requested budget,” Echeverry said, but “the service has grown tremendously” and given tight financial times with the city, they were also under pressure to keep costs down.

Shortly after, Allen claimed that she’d received word that the manager had already tendered her resignation in August, though she didn’t know when it would take effect.

“Well, that’s a bombshell,” Mayfield said, and both staff and commission members admitted they didn’t know what effect that might have.

Multiple commission members, especially Mayfield and Kristy Carter, continued to wonder if the issue was resources, and expressed concern about the potential turmoil of not extending First Transit’s contract.

“I wish this process had started earlier, or at least had come to us earlier,” Chair Jim Grode said. “i feel that there are some serious concerns that have been raised and need to be addressed. I don’t know what the ways to address them are. I feel like if we just blunder into issuing another RFP we may not have the information we need.”

Commission member Till Dohse moved to not extend First Transit’s contract another year and issue and RFP as soon as possible, but no other member seconded his motion. Shortly after, a motion from Dohse to extend the contract for a year and then possibly seek another company did pass 6-1. Ridout, opposing the move, said he didn’t feel the concerns expressed by the drivers and activists were specific enough.

Shortly after the meeting, Meath emailed city officials saying they were concerned about the results and wanted the date for deciding to extend the company’s contract to be extended to the Oct. 13 Council meeting so the elected officials can make the call.

“Renewing the contract for another year is concerning as the answers to the questions we posed in August have not been answered, and we believe that it puts the community at risk to have a transit company managing our system that is not being held accountable to issues concerning public safety,” the statement reads.

After the meeting, Allen also remained frustrated.

“The city staff has known for well over a year that there are issues,” she told the Blade. “So why the Multimodal Commission doesn’t know about it is beyond me. We’ll push for accountability and better management.”

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