October 19th was a bad day for bus riders in Orange County.
On at least 10 different scheduled stops, public buses run by the Orange County Transportation Authority failed to show up, leaving stranded some 400 riders who were depending on public transit that day.
Among those who lodged complaints was a special education teacher who said her students’ bus was supposed to show up at the Ball/Euclid intersection in Anaheim at 11:42 a.m., according to records obtained by Voice of OC.
As of 1:10 p.m., her students were still waiting for their bus to show.
While that day was a stark example of basic failures in delivering bus services, such mishaps have become increasingly common since June, when the Transportation Authority switched to a new private contractor, Cincinnati-based First Transit Inc., to handle the agency’s outsourced bus routes.
Between August and Oct. 21, the Transportation Authority recorded 42 “missed trips,” incidents wherein a bus never services a scheduled departure. That’s more missed trips in less than three months than the previous bus contractor, MV Transportation, had in its entire last year of service.
Officials with the Transportation Authority and First Transit acknowledge that the new contractor hasn’t lived up to expectations. And they blame the missed trips on First Transit being short-staffed on bus drivers, a problem that has yet to be fully resolved.
“We’re disappointed in the performance of First Transit to this point. The service level doesn’t meet our standards, and it’s really not acceptable for our passengers,” said Transportation Authority spokesman Joel Zlotnik. “We’ve been closely monitoring the issue, and we’re going to continue doing that until we’re satisfied that the service is being operated the way that it should be.”
The gaps in service also represent a cautionary tale in contracting for public services. For one thing, First Transit promised to service the bus routes for millions of dollars cheaper than the previous provider, but apparently didn’t have the staff to fulfill that commitment.
Records also show that the agency’s outsourced bus routes in general are held to a lower standard -- they’re allowed a higher number of valid complaints -- than the in-house routes. And the number of complaints has been steadily rising at least since fiscal year 2012-13.
Meanwhile, Transportation Authority bus ridership has faced unprecedented declines. As one Transportation Authority staffer lamented in an email to a colleague, the high number of missed trips “does not help our ridership issues.”
As of 2009, the Transportation Authority had outsourced only six percent of its bus services, according to a staff report. Since then, the agency has gradually increased the outsourcing to the point where today First Transit handles 34 percent of all bus services, according to an agency spokesman, and its contract could take that figure up to 40 percent.
Board of Directors Left in the Dark
Transportation Authority officials considered the high number of missed trips a problem so serious that they threatened to terminate the First Transit contract altogether.
On Oct. 22, just three days after busses failed to show for hundreds of riders, contracts administrator Virginia Abadessa drafted a letter to First Transit President Bradley Thomas, pointing out that First Transit doesn’t have the number of bus drivers on staff it committed to in its bid for the contract. First Transit also failed to “implement sound and consistent dispatch procedures to ensure such failures do not occur,” she wrote.
“Failure to rectify this situation could seriously jeopardize this agreement,” Abadessa threatened.
Yet none of this drama made its way to the Transportation Authority's board of directors. In fact, a November report to the board's transit committee painted a rosy picture -- claiming that customer complaints for contract services remained well below the acceptable rate of 3.93 valid complaints per 20,000 boardings, a complaint rate that is nearly four times the allowable ratio for in-house services.
According to the report, in-house bus routes meet the standard if they have less than five valid complaints per 100,000 boardings.
According to internal figures from the Transportation Authority obtained by Voice of OC, contract bus routes have consistently garnered more customer complaints since fiscal year 2012-13 than in-house bus routes, even though the contract routes represented only a fraction of the total service.
For example, in fiscal year 2014-15, there were over 37.8 million boardings on buses operated in-house and 1,467 complaints were generated on those routes. Meanwhile, there were 9.2 million boardings on contracted out bus services, with 1,482 complaints generated on those routes.
The figures also show that total annual complaints in general have increased by almost 50 percent since 2012-13. Meanwhile, ridership has declined over the same period by hundreds of thousands, a trend that began with the onset of the Great Recession but continued even as the recovery picked up steam.
Zlotnik said the different standard represents a benchmark negotiated into the outsourcing contract, which is why it was presented to the board that way. He also said it was a standard that Transportation Authority officials came up with years ago when contracted out bus services were a much smaller fraction of the routes.
Transit committee Vice Chairman Tom Tait, who is also mayor of Anaheim, brought up the different standards at November’s transit committee meeting. And he said in an interview that the standards should be measured the same.
“It seems odd to me” that they aren’t, Tait said.
As for the missed trips issue, Transportation Authority officials say they didn’t bring it up to the board because the bulk of the crisis took place in October -- when a route service change meant more of the driving would be taken by First Transit – and the quarterly report presented only covered July through September.
Still, if the report had used missed trips as a metric, there would have been clear signs even earlier in the quarter showing that First Transit was struggling to provide services.
'Not Good at All'
In July, the agency recorded over 39 minutes in lost time and 10 missed trips. And there were another 10 missed trips in September. That’s more missed trips than any single month of MV Transportation’s last year of service.
“To be honest it is not good at all,” Sharon Long, a Transportation Authority transit coordinator, wrote in an Aug. 3 email to First Transit officials.
In an email to Voice of OC, Media Relations Specialist Eric Carpenter wrote that agency staff chalked up the missed trips prior to October as part of the major transition to the new contractor.
“Given the magnitude of the service transition, OCTA staff had reason to believe that First Transit would meet the standards of the contract,” Carpenter wrote.
Then in October, there was a major service change that required First Transit to take over more of the routes, requiring 29 more drivers, according to Carpenter. And First Transit had trouble hiring enough drivers.
The potential for missed trips was something some board directors were worried about when they voted earlier this year to switch from MV Transportation to First Transit. Board Director Miguel Pulido cited the agency’s previous hiccups when it hired a contractor for its paratransit service, known as ACCESS, and had similar problems.
“It is not fun to have a bunch of folks in the front row…saying that they’re not getting picked up, or that they’re waiting too long,” Pulido said at the board’s March transit committee meeting.
But the board was ultimately swayed by First Transit’s significantly lower bid. MV Transportation proposed continuing its operation of the routes for just under $154.3 million.
First Transit’s bid came in almost $11 million less.
“The bottom line is we’re trying to save money for our agency,” transit committee Chairman Al Murray said at the time.
First Transit spokesman Chris Kemper said the company is still having a tough time hiring enough drivers, a problem he said is happening with bus service providers nationwide. He also said he recognizes the need for First Transit to improve.
Meanwhile, Transportation Authority officials claim things are getting better and point to additional training that dispatchers are now receiving to cut down on assignment errors.
But December was another bad month, with 20 missed trips. Nine of those missed trips happened on just one route in San Clemente on a single day. Carpenter said the missed trips were the result of a “dispatcher error.”
According to Carpenter, the next quarterly report, to be presented to the transit committee in January, will highlight some of the problems the agency has had with First Transit.
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek