Exclusive: Audit finds DC Circulator buses crumbling, unsafe for service

An audit found the D.C. Department of Transportation and Metro have failed to carry out effective oversight of First Transit, the private contractor that operates the Circulator. (WTOP/Brian Drew)

WASHINGTON — Ninety-five percent of DC Circulator buses inspected by an outside firm had at least one safety problem so significant they should have been pulled from service, according to an audit obtained exclusively by WTOP.

Transit Resource Center, an independent transit consulting firm, conducted the audit last August, but it was closely guarded until now. The audit found an “unacceptable” number of the most serious safety defects in the Circulator fleet.

The safety defects include issues with safety equipment, engine compartments, driver controls, suspension or steering, brakes or loose doors. 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 safety-critical defects found include:

  • Fire extinguisher
  • Headlights
  • Wipers
  • Cracked windshield in driver’s view
  • Seat belts, driver
  • Turn signals
  • Horn
  • Emergency flashers
  • Brake lights
  • Air pressure/Air leaks
  • Brake lining thickness- flush/forward with pin
  • Tire tread depth @ 2/32 rear; 4/32 front
  • Fuel leak
  • Exposed wires
  • Proximity to exhaust- oil, harness, etc.
  • Oil/Grease on brakes (saturated)
  • Wheelchair Ramp inoperative
  • Wheelchair securement equipment
  • Kneeling
  • Sharp edges
  • Tripping hazard- interior
  • Critical steering/suspension play, wear
  • Sensitive edges- doors- not working at all
  • Tire pressure below 80 psi
  • Wheel lug nuts
  • Exhaust leak into bus
  • Backup alarm
  • Excessive oil in air system
  • Missing emergency exit signs
  • Emergency window won’t open
  • ABS dash light on
  • Stop request signaling system
  • Excessive oil leak- dripping, puddles

Overall, the audit finds the D.C. Department of Transportation and Metro have failed to carry out effective oversight of First Transit, the private contractor that operates the Circulator.

DDOT owns the buses, and contracts with Metro to oversee First Transit.

The audit notes that First Transit keeps buses for the Potomac and Rappahannock Transit Commission in Northern Virginia up to industry standards with about three smaller defects per bus, but falls woefully short when it comes to the Circulator.

“The inspection also revealed an exceptionally high number of defects, a total of 924 or an average of twenty-two (22) defects per bus. Although the industry does not have universally accepted standards, this number of defects is considered excessive based on other maintenance evaluations,” it says in the audit.

The D.C. Council Transportation Committee is expected to raise the issue at a budget oversight hearing Friday.

DDOT says in a statement that it is “actively monitoring the Circulator’s performance through our partnership with [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority].”

“We sought the third-party audit to ensure that the program could achieve high levels of service quality,” the statement says.

Some simple issues such as cleanliness could be fixed with a better washing system than just powerwashing the outside of buses, the audit says.

Other issues require certified maintenance workers, but the outside inspectors were not able to verify the credentials of some air conditioning or other technicians.

Overall the “findings point to neglected maintenance,” the audit says, which could be corrected if First Transit lived up to its promises to the District when it bid on the contract.

The audit finds that the Metro inspector overseeing the maintenance with quarterly inspections never looked under the buses, where issues such as oil leaks and more were found.

First Transit agreed to fix all of the most significant safety issues found in the audit, but the inspectors say it is on DDOT and Metro to follow up and be sure.

“DDOT is working hard to make sure WMATA improves maintenance standards and results at Circulator,” the department’s statement to WTOP says.

Metro says it is working together with DDOT on ways to improve Circulator service, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel says. That includes regular meetings with First Transit leaders.

Findings ‘disturbing’

During the late-August inspections, 22 of DC Circulator’s oldest buses, from the 2003 and 2004 model years, averaged 3.7 safety-critical defects, in addition to 3.3 more other issues with safety implications. The audit calls the number of safety-critical defects “disturbing” and a sign of long-term lack of maintenance.

Twenty buses from the 2009 model year averaged 1.9 safety-critical defects, with 2.1 more issues with safety implications.

The inspectors from the Transit Resource Center say the high number of overall defects is “excessive but not uncommon.” The Federal Transit Administration has estimated more than 40 percent of transit buses are in marginal condition or worse.

After asking in vain for this audit for months, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764 had its drivers conduct additional checks of the buses in March before beginning their routes.

The union says 90 percent of those checks found issues that would require that the bus be pulled from service under Metrobus or New York transit protocols.

Forty-seven percent of those checks, on 20 buses, found brake defects, and other issues were found with doors hanging open, engine fumes or headlights that did not work.

“That’s really remarkable that two reports over a period of seven months came out with the same results, so what happened back in August has not been fixed,” ATU Local 1764 Trustee Sesil Rubain says in an interview.

The union is negotiating for higher wages for drivers as part of ongoing contract talks.

The third-party audit in August found only two of the 42 buses inspected — seven others were out for repairs — had zero safety-critical defects.

“Regarding whether buses maintained by First Transit for DDOT are safe, the findings speak for themselves,” the audit says.

“Despite the lack of universally accepted definitions, it is clear from this maintenance assessment that the DDOT fleet is NOT being kept in a state of good repair,” the audit adds.

Even deferred maintenance is having an impact on service, with at least 44 cases in August where lines were running with fewer buses than needed for scheduled service.

Just last week, DC Circulator had several buses out for repairs of chafed wires that led to some extended waits for riders.

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