County Bus Contractor Grilled Over Poor Service

County Supervisor Andrew Do Thursday publicly grilled an executive with the Orange County Transportation Authority’s private bus operator, following revelations that the company failed to hire enough drivers as it took over the agency’s outsourced bus routes.

Do, who is also a Transportation Authority board member, took Cincinnati-based First Transit Vice President Nick Promponas to task at the regular meeting of the board’s transit committee. He accused the contractor of failing to deliver on promises that it would be ready to assume operations of a substantial portion of the agency’s sprawling bus system.

“What I’m hearing today troubles me greatly,” Do said in response to Promponas’ acknowledgement that there have been several instances wherein buses failed to show up at scheduled stops, primarily because of a driver shortage. “You missed on the biggest aspect of the contract on your bid?”

The heated questioning from Do comes after a Voice of OC article revealing how hundreds of bus riders – perhaps thousands – have been left stranded in recent months when their buses never showed for scheduled stops. First Transit has struggled to hire the drivers needed to staff buses, leading to dozens of missed bus trips.

Yet even as the contractor was falling short, Transportation Authority staff did not raise the issue when the transit performance report was presented in November, focusing instead on positive trends.

First Transit took over the agency’s outsourced bus routes in June after it submitted a bid that was $11 million less than the bid from the previous contractor, MV Transportation.

According to Promponas, company officials misjudged the Orange County labor market and its availability of drivers. The company eventually started looking to hire drivers in neighboring counties, and will have its buses fully staffed as of Friday, he said.

But the company has also struggled with training new dispatchers, with errors from those employees also contributing to a high number of missed trips. Promponas said the dispatchers have since gone through much more rigorous training.

“We do believe that we’ve corrected the problem,” Promponas said.

Do — after board Director Greg Winterbottom pointed out that its difficult to hire drivers in Orange County at First Transit’s offer of $12 per-hour – questioned whether First Transit had underbid for its over $140 million contract.

In looking at the bid now, Do asked “are those just hopeful numbers?”

The Transportation Authority’s in-house bus drivers earn between $16.63-per-hour, the trainee rate, to $26.13-per-hour. Yet, Promponas responded that his company had misjudged only in where it would find drivers, not their pay rate.

And in answering further questioning by Do, he said that one of the reasons the company didn’t have enough drivers was because of a month-long delay in awarding the contract. The delay was “devastating to us, if you must know the truth,” he told the committee.

Also at the committee meeting, Transportation Authority staff presented a revised transit performance report covering the first quarter of fiscal year 2015-16.

Among the changes was an overhaul of the acceptable complaints standard the agency used as a performance indicator for routes operated by First Transit. Previously, the outsourced routes were allowed almost five complaints per 20,000 boardings, which is nearly four times as many allowable complaints as the standard for in-house drivers.

In the previous version of the report, the contractor had met the lower standard, with almost 20 complaints per 100,000 boardings. The agency had started used a lower standard for outsourced routes previously because privatized routes represented a much smaller portion of bus services, according to agency staff.

But the agency’s transit manager, Beth McCormick, told the board that outsourced bus services are now a much larger share and said the staff would talk with the contractor about adjusting the standard.

Committee members also asked to be updated about transit performance monthly rather than quarterly, at least in the near term. Do asked that agency staff inform the board “immediately” after it becomes clear that the contractor isn’t meeting a performance standard.

The next quarterly report, which will cover a period that saw the largest number of missed trips on outsourced lines, will be presented at next month’s transit committee meeting.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek