Privatization Panacea? It’s Not Proving True For Some D.C. Bus Riders

Isaiah J. Poole

The conservative push to put public transit systems under private management is not looking so good in Washington right now, as news breaks of widespread safety problems with a city bus service that is privately managed.

All-news WTOP Radio published a report on its website that 95 percent of the D.C. Circulator buses that serve the downtown and tourist areas of the city have safety problems severe enough that they should have been pulled from service.

“The safety defects include issues with safety equipment, engine compartments, driver controls, suspension or steering, brakes or loose doors,” WTOP reported. “Some of the issues, such as a cracked windshield, an exhaust leak into a bus, loose lug nuts or brake problems, could pose a danger to riders, workers or other cars on the road, the audit suggests.”

The report is based on an audit by the independent Transit Resource Center. The audit concludes that there has been insufficient oversight by local transportation officials of the company contracted to operate the Circulator buses, First Transit.

But for members of the Amalgamated Transit Workers union, this is the latest example of the fallacy of privatization.

“We’ve seen across the country a number of different foreign companies come in” to bid to manage public transit systems, according to an ATW official speaking on background. First Transit is the subsidiary of a corporation based in the United Kingdom. “What they do is go into transit systems and say ‘we are going to run your transit system at a lower cost and more efficiently.'”

The main way First Transit does that is to pay lower wages than what unionized public workers would earn, with lower benefits. First Transit also has a reputation for treating workers ruthlessly. One First Transit driver working for a Houston paratransit service died on the job in 2010 because her supervisor ordered her to keep working when she complained of feeling ill.

Other cities have had problems as well. One recent example is Asheville, N.C., where long-running complaints about “late buses, unsafe conditions and overworked drivers” for the First Transit-operated municipal bus system have prompted city officials to consider replacing the company.

First Transit also is a contractor for the District’s paratransit service for people with disabilities, MetroAccess. A recent profile in Governing magazine noted that under the arrangement, “With the low pay, long hours and demanding work, employees quit or get fired frequently. Rules that protect government workers don’t apply to most of them because they work for private contractors rather than directly for transit agencies. The arrangement helps government agencies hold costs down by keeping labor costs low.”

Or at least that’s the theory. Actually, increases in costs for paratransit services in the District have far exceeded the increase in demand, the article notes. The high employee turnover, which also degrades the quality of the service, is no doubt a significant factor.

Critics might counter that the city’s unionized and publicly run Metrorail system has some highly publicized safety problems of its own. But there is a difference. With regard to Metrorail, transit union leaders are working with management to address safety concerns. That is all happening under the auspices of a publicly accountable board, and oversight by local and federal agencies. But with First Transit, antagonism between workers and management, coupled with the privately-held company’s obsession with maximizing profit at all costs, is clearly putting both workers and riders at risk. And the level of public accountability is not the same.

Public agencies can be run either well or poorly, and so can private companies. That’s the point. Privatization is not a magic bullet. In fact, it can be more like a bullet in the heart of the public interest when, in the chase to save a few dollars, riders and the workers who serve them end up paying the price in unsafe vehicles, subpar wages and untenable working conditions.

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