|Broken Beyond Repair?|
|Wednesday, 16 August 2000 18:00|
Another day, another consultant.
Over the next few weeks, McDonald Transit Associates of Texas will be paying a visit to the Quad Cities to study the management of CitiBus, the City of Davenport’s municipal mass-transit service.
They’ll probably find plenty of problems, both in the way Rock Island’s MetroLINK runs it and the way Davenport oversees it. Recommendations are expected by the end of September.
And then the city will have to decide whether it wants to continue its six-year-old arrangement with MetroLINK or find some other entity to administer the bus service. A stopgap contract with MetroLINK expires December 31.
One thing is certain, though. A change in management won’t significantly improve bus service in Davenport. That’s because CitiBus has many problems, and management by MetroLINK is just one of them.
“If we want to do it correctly,” said Davenport Mayor Phil Yerington, “we’re going to have to put the money in.”
“The City of Davenport doesn’t show an interest in its bus system,” said Anna Caylor, a CitiBus driver who retired August 1 after more than 22 years with the city.
Caylor stressed that Davenport is remiss in not making better bus service a priority. Many people rely on public transportation, and with welfare-to-work initiatives requiring people to get jobs or go to school, demand is only going to grow. “There really is a need for it,” she said. “It’s so important to have a transit system, and a good one.”
CitiBus isn’t there yet, even in the eyes of its manager, MetroLINK’s Jeff Nelson. His assessed the Davenport bus system as “fairly safe” and “fairly on-time.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement.
A lot of problems have been ascribed to MetroLINK’s management of the CitiBus system, but not all of them belong there.
CitiBus has too few buses, for one thing, and that causes more shortcomings than anything else: poor maintenance and too few routes running too infrequently.
“We probably need somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 buses instead of 19,” said Davenport Alderman George Nickolas.
Because CitiBus needs all its vehicles to cover its dozen routes, it becomes nearly impossible to take a bus off-line for routine maintenance. And if buses are only being serviced when absolutely necessary, they’re more likely to break down and have severe mechanical problems. Lifts for people with disabilities have been broken, and some buses are leaky when it rains, Nickolas said. There have also been problems with faulty fare boxes.
“We just don’t have the flexibility” in the budget to buy more buses, Nickolas said. The city’s tight-fistedness shows itself in other ways. Riders have complained that CitiBus vehicles are dirty, but Nickolas said that’s because the city is unwilling to pay more for cleaning. The contractor who cleans the buses, Nickolas said, “does the best he can do within the dollars. You get what you pay for.”
And repairs might not be lasting very long, Nickolas added. “We were being kind of cheap with replacement parts,” he said.
The city’s apathy is more than just financial. Davenport Alderman Ray Ambrose characterized CitiBus as an unwanted stepchild within the Department of Public Works. The service is technically under Transportation Director Byron Baxter, but Ambrose said CitiBus has had “no day-to-day oversight by the City of Davenport.” The relationship between the city and MetroLINK has been characterized by “minimum if not poor communication,” he added.
Davenport Public Works Director Dee Bruemmer agreed. “Some of the problems we had with MetroLINK were communication problems,” she said. Bruemmer attributed many of CitiBus’ problems to poor oversight from the city – “a lot of layers [of bureaucracy] over the service.” That has led to everything from poor communication with MetroLINK to driver dissatisfaction at the level of city support, she said.
Ambrose said the oversight problems stem from the original “very weak contract,” which allowed for “minimal oversight, if any oversight at all.” “It’s not a hands-on” management system, Baxter said. “That’s specified by the contract.” The contract lists what MetroLINK will do, but the city is only entitled to “review” reports and not direct MetroLINK.
“I think the contract is adequate,” Baxter said. “I don’t have a problem with that sort of management agreement.” The transportation director added that he thinks MetroLINK has done a good job managing CitiBus.
Asked about a preference for the future, Baxter replied, “That’s up to the council.”
Yerington and Ambrose said that Bruemmer does not even want CitiBus in the Public Works department. (Bruemmer, who spoke to the River Cities’ Reader several weeks ago, was on vacation this week and unavailable for comment.)
Inadequate service, too, can be traced back to the city. In terms of the number and layout of routes and their frequency, MetroLINK is only doing what the City of Davenport has asked for. “We’ve been asking for service changes since 1994 without response,” MetroLINK’s Nelson said.
“We were very frustrated in our inability to move the system forward,” echoed Rachael Mullins, MetroLINK’s marketing director.
About 18 months ago, MetroLINK drew up a comprehensive service plan that included ways that CitiBus service could improve, including adding a route to fast-growing 53rd Street. Service to that area did not begin until May 2000 – more than a year after MetroLINK proposed it.
Improved service could also include longer hours and Sunday service, Mullins said.
In spite of what Bruemmer and Baxter say, though, MetroLINK is hardly blameless.
When pushing for service to 53rd Street, MetroLINK had proposed a route that would have cost the city approximately $175,000 a year. CitiBus drivers Caylor and Jackie Puck instead suggested tweaking two existing routes for less money. (Caylor said the changes cost MetroLINK “absolutely nothing,” while MetroLINK asserts that route alterations are one factor in the $50,000-a-year management-cost increase the city is paying now.)
“The only interest they [MetroLINK managers] have is the money,” Caylor said.
Caylor is among many drivers who’ve said that MetroLINK made work life difficult when they came forward with suggestions or complaints. “We were harassed like hell” after suggesting the 53rd Street route, she claimed, including being arbitrarily reprimanded by MetroLINK.
Puck, who has complained to the city council about MetroLINK management, did not return two phone messages.
Ambrose said MetroLINK has put CitiBus drivers on notice that their input isn’t wanted. CitiBus employees who’ve tried to improve service have often been targeted for discipline, he said. “That’s what Rolla Dunkin was doing” as CitiBus’ operations manager. “And look what happened to him.” Dunkin was fired in 1997 and sued, claiming that he was wrongfully terminated. He won his case and, if Davenport takes control of its bus service, will be given preference for his old position. Dunkin did not return two phone calls from the River Cities’ Reader.
CitiBus drivers complain that MetroLINK has either an apathy or antipathy for the Davenport system and is more concerned with its own operations.
Alderman Nickolas suggested that Nelson simply doesn’t have time to be overly concerned with CitiBus. Nelson oversees the MetroLINK fixed-route service, trolleys, river cabs, and rentals, as well as the maintenance garage that services both Davenport and Illinois buses. “That really is a full-time job,” Nickolas said. Taking care of CitiBus in addition to those duties “can be a difficult balancing act at best.”
The most serious complaints about MetroLINK management have come from drivers who said that dispatchers have been slow to respond to emergency calls. They have also argued that poor maintenance has endangered both drivers and passengers.
“They don’t get responses when they call in for assistance or advice,” Nickolas said.
“Drivers are put in danger,” Caylor said. In several situations, she noted, passengers have assaulted or threatened drivers, and dispatchers have not responded to calls for help. In February, three drivers complained to the Davenport City Council about a lack of response by dispatchers.
“I think things can only get better” under new management, Ambrose said. “Just listen to the drivers.”
“You can blame the budget,” Yerington said, “but I don’t think money gets in the way of good employee relations.”
Caylor said the dispatch radio system has Illinois calls on one set of frequencies and Iowa calls on the others. She acknowledged that dispatchers are often slow to respond to both MetroLINK and CitiBus drivers, but in many cases they’d simply ignore calls on the Iowa side of things, routine or emergency. “I’d just go and break over to the Illinois side” to get the attention of dispatchers, she said.
Favoritism is at the heart of questions about MetroLINK’s management. CitiBus drivers, who are employees of the City of Davenport, claim they’re treated differently than their MetroLINK counterparts.
“They receive the same service that MetroLINK drivers receive,” countered Mullins. The same dispatchers answer all the calls, and they treat all drivers equally, she said.
(Common sense says that’s not likely; if Davenport hired the City of Rock Island to plow its streets in winter, whose roads would get top priority?)
Nelson has taken a different tact with outspoken drivers, saying their claims have been investigated and found groundless, even hinting that complainants are problem drivers but declining to discuss the situations further because they’re personnel matters.
Favoritism is also an issue with bus maintenance.
“You see Illinois buses being worked on constantly,” Caylor said. “They didn’t have time to work on Davenport buses.”
The maintenance question is difficult to resolve, because the City of Davenport and MetroLINK jointly own the Quad City Policy Group, which maintains both fleets at its Rock Island facility. Davenport owns 43 percent of the garage, MetroLINK the remaining 57 percent. Two representatives apiece from the city and MetroLINK sit on the Policy Group board.
But Davenport officials assert that things aren’t as equitable as they sound. MetroLINK has a contract to manage the garage, something that might be seen as a conflict of interest. “One could reasonably come to that conclusion,” Nickolas said.
“But if you have a manager outside of MetroLINK, he might be making sure we’re getting our proportionate share” of maintenance efforts, Nickolas added.
(The city does have some leverage on the maintenance garage, though. If Davenport were to pull out of the garage agreement, MetroLINK would be contractually obligated to pay the city the value of its 43-percent stake.)
Ambrose was also upset last winter when MetroLINK changed a route that served a development center for people with disabilities, including switching to a bus that was too small for the number of riders.
MetroLINK’s Nelson pleaded ignorance why all these issues have come up. “It’s really hard to understand sometimes what drives a political process,” he said. The CitiBus issue might be hot now, but everybody might forget about it in a week, he said.
Mullins claimed to be equally baffled. “I’m not sure where a lot of these issues came from,” she said.
Davenport’s current head-scratching and soul-searching should have begun last December, when the MetroLINK board of directors sent a letter to the city saying it didn’t intend to renew its contract to run CitiBus when it expired June 30. A number of factors went into the decision, including complaints by drivers about maintenance and Davenport’s unwillingness to expand and improve bus service.
“They didn’t take it very seriously,” Mullins said.
So in June, with the deadline looming and no back-up plan at all, city officials essentially begged MetroLINK for a six-month extension.
Ambrose called it “embarrassing.”
“If you had a contractor who said, ‘I don’t want to build your house,’” Caylor asked, “Would you go begging him to build it?”
And even though MetroLINK appears to want to unload CitiBus, and even though many Davenport officials are clearly dissatisfied with MetroLINK, this unhappy union could well continue.
“It’s really going to be in Davenport’s court,” said MetroLINK’s Mullins. “We’re glad this has gotten attention.” So now that Davenport realized that MetroLINK was serious in its threat, all is forgiven? “We’re keeping our minds open,” she said. “I believe they’ll come back to MetroLINK and ask for a renewal of the contract.”
And, in fact, MetroLINK does have an interest in maintaining its current relationship with CitiBus. Nelson explained that the management arrangement gives MetroLINK “economies of scale.” A unified public-transit system also gives MetroLINK “political clout in Springfield, Des Moines, and Washington,” he added. The larger the system, the easier it is to get grants to make it bigger.
Several factors will determine what happens next. The first is what McDonald Transit Associates finds in its review of MetroLINK’s management. The company will study the benefits, drawbacks, and costs of three management options: MetroLINK, the city, or an outside firm. (McDonald is also charged with looking at all aspects of CitiBus operations, but that study won’t be finished until January.)
“Sometimes you hire a consultant to prove your point,” Nelson said. “Sometimes you hire a consultant to find the truth.”
Public Works Director Bruemmer said the city is not asking the consultant to re-state what it already knows. “I don’t want to second-guess this company that’s coming,” she said. “You don’t steer them.”
Although Public Works has shown no interest in taking over the system, “I don’t want to throw it out of Public Works because Public Works doesn’t want it,” Yerington said. He added that he hopes the city council doesn’t decide to sign a new contract with MetroLINK simply because it’s the path of least resistance. “MetroLINK has proven it can’t handle it,” he said.
The biggest question, especially considering the low budgetary priority given to public transit in Davenport, is whether a private firm or the city can manage CitiBus for less money. Nelson calls MetroLINK’s management “cost-effective” for the city. Because about 70 percent of a bus system’s operating budget is labor, he added, “the likelihood of saving any significant amount of money with a management contract is pretty remote.”
Bruemmer has estimated that taking over CitiBus would cost the city approximately $320,000 a year. MetroLINK upped the price for the current six-month management agreement, from $198,000 for the 12 months ending in June to $125,000 for the current six-month contract, according to Bruemmer. That’s a difference of approximately $50,000 a year.
Mullins said the price jumped to account for the short term of the contract, route changes, and the likelihood that MetroLINK will have to do more statistical reporting during this interim period. Even though two of those items are temporary, Mullins would not say that the price would go down if Davenport signs a new long-term contract. “I don’t know,” she said. “There are a lot of ‘if’s right now.”
More important than the consultant’s report is whether Davenport will decide that public transportation is important. No matter how MetroLINK has managed CitiBus, it’s easy to see that the Rock Island-based service is superior to Davenport’s.
MetroLINK has more than three times as many buses as CitiBus, operates seven days a week, and runs until 9 p.m. CitiBus still operates six days a week, and only to 6 p.m. MetroLINK had 2.5 million riders on its fixed-route system last year, while CitiBus had only 1 million. Under those conditions, it’s no surprise that CitiBus is floundering. The city makes the service a low-priority item, and consequently nobody wants to ride it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It’s perceived as another social service,” Mullins said. “You need to move it to a point where it’s marketable.”
Right now, people ride CitiBus because they don’t have an alternative. The service needs to be upgraded enough that “discretionary” riders – people with access to other means of transportation – use CitiBus, Mullins said.
There are other reasons to get more people on the bus. “We need to double” ridership, Nickolas said. Currently, the city subsidizes each ride on CitiBus to the tune of about $3 to cover maintenance and operational costs. More riders would mean that the overhead is spread over more people, making the system more efficient.
But the whole concept of marketing and expanding mass transit seems anathema to the city. And, so long as the status quo remains, things aren’t going to get better, no matter who’s running CitiBus.
“If we don’t give them [the people running CitiBus] the right tools,” Yerington said, “we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”
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