Drive, She Said

RTD's buses keep rolling, but sometimes it's hard to tell where they're going.

The man behind the wheel of the forty-foot passenger bus sits and waits for 9:12 a.m., the minute that he's scheduled to pull out of a stop at Seventh and Water streets. But on this recent Tuesday morning, he also waits for some kind of clue as to what, exactly, he is supposed to do once that departure time arrives. After surveying the handwritten scrawl on a crumpled sheet of notebook paper, he turns to me, the coach's sole passenger and a veteran of this ride, and makes an appeal.

"They just gave me this route. This is my first day, and I really don't know where I'm supposed to go," he says. For the next twenty minutes, as the driver pilots the vehicle through the cramped one-ways of LoDo and the congested thoroughfares of downtown, I instruct him on where to turn, where to stop and where not to stop. By the time we hit 17th Street, we've got a load of human cargo; without fail, the driver apologizes to everyone who boards, explaining the plight of the uninitiated driver thrust onto the streets of Denver with only the waving hands of curbside riders and the less-than-expert advice of a passenger to guide him.

I've come to expect such bumps in the road when traveling along it in a city bus, especially on Route 10, which originates in northwest Denver's Rockmont Loop and winds a serpentine path across the city, through the University Hospital complex and the upscale Mayfair neighborhood, and into the western fringes of Aurora. In the two years that I've been riding this run, I've been under the command of plenty of polite and competent drivers. But I've also observed drivers smoking and sleeping on board, cussing at customers and honking at cars. I've been repeatedly waved through without paying a fare (in one instance because the driver's CD player was positioned upon the fare console), hit on by drivers while riding alone (one man told me repeatedly that my perfume was "driving him wild" and that he "didn't know what to do about it") and grown accustomed to not thinking twice when a new person appears behind the wheel. I've waited in freezing-cold rain for buses that never came, run after others that never stopped, and looked the other way when one operator -- who liked wearing headphones and singing heavy-metal songs while driving -- dinged a utility truck and moved on without phoning in the incident to anyone.

Mike Gorman

It has, at times, been a wild ride -- one that's often led me to wonder just what, exactly, could be going on in the downtown offices of the Regional Transportation District. How could a system governed by a need for exactitude -- necessitated by the implied guarantee that a bus will arrive at one destination at a precise time, to the minute, each day -- allow such apparently haphazard methods on such a well-traveled route?

It's simple, says Bill Jones of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1001, which represents 2,000 RTD employees. The answer lies in a 1989 decision by the Colorado Legislature that required RTD to privatize 20 percent of its route service. In 2001, the number was upped to 35 percent, even though local providers hadn't been leaping at the opportunity to cart Denver's carless culture about town. RTD accepted bids from two companies that would ultimately be released from their contracts: After three months of shoddy service, the district fired Tennessee-based TCT Transit Service and put an Illinois company, ATC/Vancom, in the driver's seat. But in January, that company skipped out on a five-year, $80.1 million deal with RTD, leaving it to divide its routes between Ohio's First Transit and Kansas-based Laidlaw. Now handling roughly two-thirds of the privatized chunk, First Transit has shown some signs of stress: In July, three of its employees were caught stealing between $300 and $30,000 in untallied bus fares ("Fare and Foul," July 11). And a driver on a Laidlaw bus is facing sex-assault charges after an alleged attack on a fourteen-year-old rider over the weekend.

Despite these glitches, privatization has proved to be cost-effective, at least in the accounting ledgers. According to a recent cost-analysis report prepared by RTD, privatization has saved the district more than $40 million since 1991, largely because without it, the transit company would have been required to expand its own infrastructure for bus storage and spend more on upgrading its fleet operations.

But critics of the system say that gains have been made at the expense of both service and safety.

Like most of the riders on Route 10, which is normally operated by First Transit, I had no clue that I wasn't hitching a ride with RTD. Most buses bear the same trademark "Welcome to RTD" greeting on their sidewalls. The only things that really distinguishes RTD vehicles from contracted ones are the patches found on drivers' uniforms and the ID cards that hang from their necks. But the ATU argues that the differences run much deeper. As the union's attorney, Jones is fond of saying that he wishes the private companies would paint their coaches fluorescent orange, to distinguish them from those navigated and maintained by RTD operators. He believes his union's drivers do a more consistent job.

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