The wheels are falling off at the Capital Area Transit System, union officials said Monday.
They weren’t speaking metaphorically. Representatives of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents a portion of transit system workers, showed CATS board members photos of a bus that purportedly lost its wheel while in service.
The union requested to meet with CATS leadership to air out employee grievances, and the two sides sat down publicly Monday morning. The meeting came days after a CATS bus crashed into a house. Police suspect a mechanical failure but haven’t closed the investigation, and it wasn’t discussed in the meeting.
The union generally advocated for better fleet maintenance and more training for employees. Representatives came to Louisiana last summer to lobby for more state funding for local transit but began a separate safety campaign after Baton Rouge workers shared their concerns, ATU representative Antonette Bryant has said.
She and ATU representative Anthony Garland showed CATS authorities photos of cracked windshields, leaky roofs, exposed wires, broken wheelchair lifts and one of “a number” of buses that doesn’t have a horn. They said the air-conditioning unit of one bus became detached while it was in service and showed a picture of the unit hanging over the back row of seats.
“These are the deplorable conditions that (employees) are working in every day,” Garland said. “Employees are forced to take equipment out on the line ... that is not safe.”
The meeting was civil, but CATS officials pushed back slightly, asking when the photos were taken — a fact that was never nailed down. They also questioned whether the buses depicted were in regular use, although union representatives said that at least some of the units were in service when the photos of damage were taken by employees.
Board member Ken Perret also pointed out that drivers are responsible for checking their buses before taking them out for the day, a measure in place to protect operators and riders. He wondered why drivers are either not catching problems or not reporting them.
“That’s the last check,” he said.
Garland responded that drivers are worried they won’t be able to get a replacement vehicle and will be grounded and sent home without getting paid. He and Bryant urged CATS to buy more equipment and develop a system for tracking maintenance issues. They also said the system should perform preventative maintenance to address issues before they become dangerous.
Chief Operations Officer Donald Palmer told the union he is working on a plan for monthly and quarterly meetings with employees.
“A lot of the things you mentioned are things that we’re very concerned about,” Perret said.
However, he also said CATS only began collecting a dedicated millage in 2012, and board Chairman Jim Brandt said funding will continue to be an issue.
Interim CEO Bill Deville did note that CATS has plans to buy a dozen new vehicles before the end of the year to replace the last of the Bluebird models, which are old and out of production, making repairs difficult. The board also has approved a plan to gradually replace the fleet over the next five years.
Garland said the new buses are good but that CATS still needs to develop new maintenance procedures and other policies. “Right now, CATS doesn’t know what it will face tomorrow,” he said.
Earlier this month, when the board accepted outgoing CEO Bob Mirabito’s resignation, Garland said the next executive will need to look at these kind of big-picture issues. The local union president was given one of 10 seats on the committee to search for a permanent CEO.
In addition to maintenance issues, he and Bryant argued for more employee training and certification. They also recommended CATS develop a system for evaluating its routes so it can identify and consolidate underperforming lines and add service to popular routes.
Board members have discussed introducing a strategic plan in the coming weeks or months that may address some of those concerns, but in a meeting last week, Brandt said Mirabito’s departure may delay the process. Mirabito has not attended any of the board’s meetings since announcing his retirement, and Brandt said last week the outgoing CEO has been using accrued leave time until his last day May 6.
The board and administration generally were supportive of the union’s efforts for more state funding of local transit, but Perret said that with the current state of Louisiana’s finances, ATU may be facing “an uphill battle.” He wondered if CATS might be able to find more funding locally.
Bryant said because local riders are generally unsatisfied with CATS, the union just wants to try to get the millage renewed when it goes back to the ballot in five or six years.
The union representatives also plan to address the CATS board during its regular monthly meeting Tuesday. Garland said employees with photos of the damaged fleet will rally outside the meeting from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the BREC facility at 6201 Florida Blvd.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.