“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.” – WTOP, 2016
“…[buses] have broken down in the middle of their routes, leaving passengers
stranded and others waiting at the bus stop…” – Washington Post, 2017
For years, D.C. Circulator bus operators warned First Transit, the private contractor hired by WMATA and DDOT to manage the system, that they were encountering dangerous safety problems on Circulator buses. From damaged mirrors and malfunctioning air conditioning to brake failures, doors flying open mid-service, and smoke emitting from engines, these defects put both drivers and riders at serious risk. Yet First Transit did nothing to address these issues.
Exasperated with trying to convince First Transit to change its maintenance program, ATU Local 1764, the union representing Circulator workers, took their concerns to the DC Council, DC Mayor, and DDOT in 2015 and 2016. Then-Director Dormsjo admitted that DDOT had hired an outside firm to audit First Transit’s maintenance program in the summer of 2015. However, Dormsjo refused to release the audit to the riding public, so Local 1764 initiated its own safety survey of Circulator vehicles in March, 2016. Their results showed 90% of vehicles had “class A” defects that in WMATA or other bus systems would have required vehicles to be pulled from service. Pressed by the union’s survey, DDOT publicly acknowledged the results of their own audit, which found 95% of vehicles were not road-worthy.
DDOT blamed First Transit. First Transit blamed DDOT. The root of the problem was obvious: First Transit wasn’t investing in the facilities it needed to repair buses and skimped on maintenance certification and training for mechanics. It was cutting corners to save money and enhance the profitability of the service.
While bus drivers won the right to refuse to operate unsafe buses, First Transit did little to improve the maintenance program. A 2017 audit conducted by DDOT nearly one year after safety issues came to light found that “so many buses are out-of-service that the Circulator’s spare rate — the ratio of buses not in service to those available — has climbed to close to double the industry standard.”
DDOT recently purchased new buses, but they are in the hands of First Transit and subject to the same flawed maintenance process. The best step for DDOT to take today is to municipalize the Circulator. By bringing it in house, DDOT can take direct control of the maintenance program, and workers and riders won’t be caught in the middle of a blame game between the city and its contractors.