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.
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.
"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."
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?"
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."
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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.