Mariate Echeverry, Transportation Planning Manager for City of Asheville, released the following statement at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 9/29:
After an initial 3-year agreement with First Transit, we are now in a position where we evaluate contract renewal on an annual basis.
After four years and a changing market we thought it was fiscally responsible to forego contract renewal this year and use the opportunity instead to post a Request for Proposals (RFP) which will allow us to review contracted deliverables and strengthen contract performance measures.
We want to make sure the taxpayer is getting the highest quality service at the most competitive rate.
It is important to note there will be no interruption in service. Our contract with First Transit runs through the end of December and we will most likely negotiate to extend it because the RFP process can be lengthy.
They’ve worked through channels. They’ve gone to committee meetings. They’ve met with city staff and elected officials. But despite their attempts to follow the appropriate process, the People’s Voice on Transportation Equality (VOTE) — a group of Just Economics leaders that developed the 19-Point People’s Agenda for Transportation — finds itself up against an Oct. 1 deadline.
If any substantial change in how the bus system operates is to happen in the upcoming year, the city must announce its intent to issue a new Request for Proposals (RFP) for the management contract that runs Asheville’s bus service by Thursday. If the city does not announce an intent to issue a new RFP, the existing contract with the management entity First Transit likely will be extended for another year.
According to Diane Allen, bus driver and president of ATU Local 128, the federal government requires the city to contract with an independent management entity to oversee the transit system’s use of federal 13c grant funds. Ohio-based First Transit has managed Asheville’s bus system since 2008. The current management agreement was awarded to First Transit in 2011 as a three-year contract with three one-year options to renew. Asheville opted to extend the contract at the end of 2014 for 2015; the city could choose to renew First Transit’s contract again for 2016 and, potentially, 2017.
No matter what, says Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics, the city must begin a new RFP process by March 2017. But, she wonders, can what her organization calls riders of necessity — those for whom the bus system is the only option for getting to work, school or appointments — wait that long?
Citing complaints received from riders about missing buses, problems with the Next Bus mobile app and routes S2 and E1.5 being out of service for extended periods, Meath says it’s clear that First Transit is not being held accountable for deficiencies in its management.
According to mechanics and drivers, continues Meath, the system as a whole is under-staffed. A shortage of bus mechanics results in a lack of functioning buses for scheduled routes or, in some cases, buses running with known safety issues unaddressed. A shortage of bus drivers results in missed routes and puts pressure on drivers to work excessive overtime hours or to work when they are unwell.
“Drivers are driving when they are sick,” says City Councilman Cecil Bothwell, who has spoken with representatives of the transit workers’ union. “They feel an obligation to their passengers. On their regular routes, they know everybody and they know these people have got to get to work. And so they’re showing up with the flu and stuff.”
Bothwell points out that the system employs only two supervisors to handle a seven-day-a-week schedule. “How can two people cover seven days of service?” he asks. Meath wrote in an Aug. 26 email to city transportation department director Ken Putnam, “We have also heard that supervisors are not required to be on duty after 5 p.m. and yet buses remain on the road into the evening. How are problems dealt with at that time? If a supervisor is useful before 5 p.m., wouldn’t they be useful the whole time buses are in service?”
Allen says employee morale in the system is “very low. Drivers are asking me, ‘What’s our next step?’ and I don’t know what to tell them.” One thing Allen doesn’t think the public understands is that bus drivers and mechanics are highly motivated to serve the riders who depend on them for safety, on-time performance and courtesy. “We are heartfelt, loving people who just want to be heard for a change,” she explains.
At a Sept. 23 meeting of the Multimodal Transportation Commission, according to Meath, the recommendation of the Commission was to extend First Transit’s contract for another year and to begin an RFP process in March for soliciting bids for the transit management contract the following year. In the meantime, Transit Committee Chair Julie Mayfield proposed that staff work with the Transit Committee, Multimodal Transportation Commission, Just Economics and drivers to insert better accountability measures in the new RFP.
Councilwoman Gwen Wisler says she has discussed the issue with City Manager Gary Jackson, and she expressed to him her preference that the city announce on Thursday, Oct. 1 its intent to go forward with an RFP. “We are several years into this contract, and I think it would be good for the city to open up the process and look at all the available alternatives,” she comments. At the same time, Wisler understands that the timing of the RFP process is also a time management issue. If the manager of the transportation department says now is not the right time to undertake an RFP, it’s not her role as a councilperson to override that decision.
Councilman Chris Pelly also supports issuing an RFP as soon as possible. “I’ve heard enough concerns to warrant taking a look to find ways to insert accountability into the process,” says Pelly. He agrees with Wisler that the decision to issue an RFP is a management determination that must balance this issue with other priorities and projects.
Councilman and Vice Mayor Marc Hunt is “troubled by what I am hearing about the quality of service we may be getting from the contractor.” Hunt says he is eager to speak to the city manager about the issue, and he plans to do so within the next 24 hours. While recognizing that time is short before the Oct. 1 deadline, Hunt explains, “I want to make sure I am fully informed on all sides.”
Regardless of the timing of the RFP process, Meath says, Asheville needs a public dialogue on how to hold the contractor accountable. Because First Transit is not a public agency, accessing maintenance records or reports listing concerns brought forward by drivers or passengers is difficult. While the city cites legal restrictions on its ability to intervene in the operations of the management company, Meath believes new pathways for resolving concerns can be incorporated into the city’s oversight of the management contract.
“When the city does issue an RFP — what does accountability look like? How do we write it into a contract?” she asks.
Speaking on behalf of necessity riders, Meath pulls no punches: “The city’s current hands-off approach is not in the best interests of riders, drivers and the community.”
Note: this article was edited in response to information received from the City of Asheville at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29. Please see the city’s statement at the top of the article.