Drive, She Said

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

"The big problem with privatization, aside from it being just an inherently stupid idea, is that I really don't think RTD is getting the most bang for its buck," Jones says.

Many private buses -- which are leased from RTD at a rate of one dollar a year -- are older than those in the active RTD fleet and are more likely to break down, Jones says. When that happens, "loop" coaches are often dispatched to collect riders, a system that's helped deliver rides to their destinations, but one that's been bad for morale at RTD. In a ten-count charge recently filed against RTD with the Colorado Department of Labor, the ATU alleges that RTD drivers are often denied time off for illness or vacation, in part because they are called upon to "cover for private contractors like Laidlaw or First Transit when they can't get a bus on the street." That issue is one that the union expects to address in November, when it begins negotiating a new three-year contract (the current one expires in February of 2003).

RTD spokesman Scott Reed estimates that RTD dispatches loop buses to First Transit and Laidlaw a couple of times each day, usually because of equipment breakdowns. Still, Reed says he hasn't noticed any real difference in the volume of complaint calls generated by rides on buses run by private operators and those run by RTD. "Every route gets complaints," he says.

On paper, at least, the differences between the three service companies are not easily detected. As a function of their contract with RTD, both First Transit and Laidlaw are required to uphold certain performance standards, which range from policies about things like presentation to specific operational procedures for maintenance and dispatch. Scheduled and surprise inspections are routinely conducted in order to track flaws in the system. A report covering the second quarter of this year reveals only minor discrepancies between RTD, First Transit and Laidlaw in the areas of vehicle on-time rates and customer service; in fact, Laidlaw and First Transit fared better than RTD when it came to vehicle accidents and passenger accidents, respectively.

But missing from such a report is hard data on things like employee turnover, driver competence or the general experience of riding on a privately piloted bus compared to one operated by RTD. Why, for example, do my voyages with First Transit seem to regularly involve some kind of drama or mishap -- though maybe not of the contract-violating variety -- while my rides with RTD have been incident-free?

Jones cites a system of self-policing, which allows First Transit and Laidlaw to monitor their own performance, as a possible explanation.

"If a driver coming out of the garage in an RTD bus accidentally dings his mirror, that could conceivably go on to his record as an accident," Jones says. "The other guys are going to be more likely to just put in a new piece of glass and move on. It's sort of like, I speed every day, but am I going to call the highway patrol as soon as I get home? Of course not. It's the same thing here. In my observation and things I've heard from people who worked for either First Transit or Laidlaw, it's just easier to get away with things because you can control more of the information."

First Transit general manager Steve Sullivan says that talk about the supposed problems is just that. For example, he notes that some First Transit buses were operating without air conditioning in the early days of summer because of a mechanical flaw -- and not as a cost-cutting measure, as some have speculated. The company worked with a private contractor to repair that function in all of its buses. And while he acknowledges that some First Transit runs are rockier than others, he attributes that to the fleet -- and the routes -- First Transit inherited from ATC.

"Some of those buses are really shabby, and some of the organization with the previous provider was really shabby," he says. "We've actually gone in and assumed a couple of routes, even RTD's, and turned them around to the point that regular riders have begged us to keep them."

As for Jones's charge that First Transit somehow encourages its drivers to skirt RTD detection, Sullivan is dismissive. "Every operator involved in any incident is required to report it. That's something that we repeat all the time to our drivers. If we were to discover something had happened and wasn't reported, that would be a dischargable offense."

Laidlaw has been the focus of criticism, too. In testimony presented to the state legislature in 1990, a onetime Laidlaw driver recalled an instance in which she and a number of other drivers were called to a dirt lot and fed brown-bag lunches in order to keep their under-maintained buses out of a surprise inspection by RTD.

To Doug Geis, Laidlaw's general manager for the Denver region, such stories smack of urban legend -- and union posturing.

"I've been in town nine years, and I have to tell you, for nine years I've been hearing that story," he says. "Supposedly we have this magic lot, and we're always putting our buses there to avoid the inspection. But where is this lot? How would we possibly be able to move the buses there without getting busted? I've heard so many stories about all of these evil things that we have supposedly done. In my time here, I can tell you, nothing like that has been true, to my experience."

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