Drive, She Said

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

Louie is a middle-aged man who often drives Route 16L on weekdays. He joined First Transit in January, when his old company, ATC, pulled out of its contract with RTD. Louie says he never applied with the district because the word on the street was that the district had "applications piled up in a big stack."

"The good thing about privates is that they give you an opportunity," he says, adding that of the eleven students in his training session, he's the only one who's still reporting for duty behind the wheel. "The job is tough -- not physically, but mentally. You have to deal with a lot of smart alecks and people giving you a hard time. There are a lot of rules that you have to follow for dispatch -- like, if you're running behind by ten minutes, you have to call and report it, even if it's because of weather. It's a hard job, but what are you going to do?"

Mike Gorman

Louie says he thinks his job might be even harder were he to drive for RTD, and he might be right. Contracted employees enjoy more flexibility than do their RTD counterparts when it comes to scheduling and attendance. And according to recent grumblings by the ATU, formerly friendly relations between unionized RTD employees and the district have gone sour since the beginning of 2002, when the company tightened up its policies on vacation, sick leave and overtime. As free agents, private drivers are free from any obligation to abide by union regulations or -- in an extreme case -- a strike.

But Laidlaw's Geis says he doesn't believe a private driver's job is any easier than that of his public counterpart, citing a uniformity of training procedures between the three companies. Once a new recruit is hired by Laidlaw, for example, he is required to receive classroom training before taking to the streets for supervised driving; all three companies require roughly two weeks of supervised road work before turning a new driver loose.

"We don't have any different standards or acceptance policies, in part because we have to comply with RTD requirements," he says. "We do what's right for the customer, because that's who we serve. I think that if the perception is that it's easier to come and work here, a person would find that it's not true."

Geis also dismisses the idea that private transport companies have unusually high rates of turnover.

"With all jobs and professions, there's turnover," he says. "I think all jobs are stressful, no matter what. This job obviously has its stresses, but that's part of it, and people who do this know it."

His own stress aside, privatization seems to be working for Louie. And according to the numbers, the system is working for RTD's finance department, too. But even RTD itself is non-committal about whether or not privatization has accomplished what state legislators had hoped it would when they passed the bill more than ten years ago.

"Contracting out is state law, and RTD complies with that law," Reed says. "I can't really debate whether or not it is a beneficial system. The bottom line is that we have to follow it."

RTD boardmember Carl E. Erickson says that roughly four years ago, members of the board tried to avoid having too many contracted routes in their district. But despite some lingering problems, service by all three current companies has improved system-wide, he insists.

"I think we had some bad experiences with some of the early contractors, and that did lead to a certain anxiety among the boardmembers, who would receive the brunt of the complaints," he says. "But the contractors we have now have more experience and are able to see what the market actually is. We're getting a better quality of driver across the board, people who want to drive buses as a career.

"We still get a lot of comments about buses being overcrowded and things of that nature," Erickson adds. "But we've got a new program in place to eventually replace all of the buses driven by both RTD and the other providers. It is my firm belief that we are making progress."

When I tell First Transit's Steve Sullivan about my troubles with Route 10, he seems genuinely baffled. Twice, he asks me to run through my list of bad experiences. I can tell he's writing them down. After cataloguing my grievances, he says he wants to ask me a question: "Have you ever reported any of these incidents?"

I haven't. Sullivan says he hears that all the time. Before giving me his private cell-phone number -- so that I can call him the next time I find trouble aboard one of his company's coaches -- he tells me he plans to go down to Seventh and Water, to personally ride and observe the route.

I tell him I'll see him there at 9:12.

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