By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
• Metro creatively interpreting accident statistics in ways that enable it to misrepresent the actual number of bus crashes occurring each year
• Metro taking no responsibility for accidents incurred by First Transit, a private subcontractor that operates one-sixth of Metro's buses and consistently posts a higher accident rate
In its own bus barn case, Metro still has not implemented many of the recommendations made by its investigators.
Eight months after Thomas's death, Metro continues to require its maintenance workers to wear the same "too cumbersome" rubber boots when operating buses. According to Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts, only new maintenance workers will be required to have CDLs. The 706 bus fuelers and cleaners Metro currently employs will be "grandfathered in," Roberts says, and will receive no additional driver training.
Unlike Metro, most bus companies require their maintenance workers to hold CDLs though they do not drive beyond the garage lots, according to Roger Allen, a nationally recognized transportation consultant based in Friendswood.
"Metro is operating below industry standards," Allen says.
In 1997, Metro's board of directors privatized more than a dozen of its bus routes to cut costs, projecting an annual savings of $5 million. First Transit, a private company headquartered in Cincinnati, has since won two consecutive five-year contracts totaling $245 million to operate Metro's northwest garage and one-sixth of Metro's 1,400 buses.
Metro drivers are paid about 80 percent higher wages than First Transit drivers, causing widespread speculation that First Transit drivers are insufficiently trained and supervised. This view is upheld by the poor performance ratings First Transit has posted during the last decade.
"Is First Transit being held to the same criteria we are? We don't think so," says Sandra Burleson, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 260, which represents about 1,800 Metro drivers and maintenance workers. "We have concerns about their training practices; we don't trust their records."
Commuters have almost no way of knowing that First Transit drivers are at the wheel. The drivers wear Metro uniforms and commandeer Metro buses. The only thing identifying them as First Transit drivers is a small patch worn on their uniform sleeves.
Even so, commuters are safer on the buses than in the streets. First Transit drivers have caused some of the most grisly, high-profile accidents involving Metro buses in recent years, and their victims were mainly car passengers and pedestrians.
Despite these failings, the Press found as follows:
• Metro conducts no oversight of First Transit's operations. Metro neither oversees background checks on First Transit drivers nor ensures that they are properly trained.
• Metro does not examine First Transit's internal investigation reports into major accidents. Metro representatives claim they do not even have access to First Transit's investigation files.
• Metro keeps incomplete records of First Transit accident reports. Even the most egregious cases, in which First Transit drivers are responsible for deaths and serious injuries, are not fully documented by Metro.
• First Transit's incompetence has saved Metro more than $1.2 million since its contract began. Each month Metro recoups thousands of dollars from First Transit for services not rendered.
Metro frequently brushes off complaints about its operations by pointing to statistics that indicate an exemplary safety record. A closer look at the numbers and the faces behind them reveals a grimmer story.
"Metro has one of the lowest accident rates in the country," George Smalley, Metro's vice president of external affairs, boasted in January after a Metro bus killed a pedestrian. Metro's record of 0.68 accidents per 100,000 miles, Smalley said, "is unheard of in the transit industry."
This statistic is deceptive, since Metro makes a distinction between "accidents" and "incidents." An "accident," according to Metro, is when a pedestrian or passenger either dies or is transported from the scene to a hospital, or when a vehicle sustains damages exceeding $1,000. An "incident" covers everything else.
Metro buses are involved in multiple "incidents" nearly every day, the Press learned while poring through several phone-book-size stacks of reports dating from 2001 to the present. Some days are worse than others. For instance, on November 3, 2005, Metro buses were involved in at least eight scrapes. They rear-ended one car, sideswiped another, busted a mirror and flattened a tire against a curb, among other mishaps. (Click herefor a snapshot look at some of the most damaging run-ins people have had with Metro.)
These and hundreds of other crashes are not factored into the "annual accident rate" Metro frequently holds up to demonstrate its commitment to safety.
"...We operate one of the safest systems in the nation," wrote Metro CEO and President Frank J. Wilson in a letter published last month by the Houston Chronicle, in which he makes reference to two recent Metro fatalities. "In the two years between [these] tragedies, we logged 8.8 million hours of service."
Wilson neglected to mention in his letter that during the two-year period he cites, Metro buses killed a total of eight people. Metro investigators ruled that half of these were "preventable accidents" caused by the bus operators.
Wilson declined to be interviewed for this article. Metro spokeswoman Roberts insisted that questions be submitted in writing and would provide only written responses.
In an apparent attempt to thwart our investigation, Metro initially estimated it would cost as much as $21,000 to provide access to the public documents we requested. In the end, the Press spent about $250 for Metro to compile and copy the information.
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