The driver who raised concerns about a bus the day before it crashed addressed the Capital Area Transit System Board on Tuesday, and after the meeting, the acting CEO announced tentative plans to put 32 new buses on the road next year.
In its fourth public meeting in eight business days, the CATS board fielded complaints from members of the Amalgamated Transit Union who picketed outside before the board convened. Operator Anthony Johnson said he reported problems with the steering wheel, accelerator, brakes and transmission of bus No. 130 the day before it crashed into a house last week because of what police suspect was an unspecified mechanical issue.
Johnson said he was sent home after reporting the problems because he refused to drive the vehicle and another bus was not available.
Union members and riders raised numerous safety and maintenance complaints — buses without horns, moldy interiors and cracked windshields among them. Mechanic Kelvin Robertson said repair crews lack parts and must cannibalize some buses to fix others in the stretched-thin fleet.
Acting CEO Bill Deville, appointed earlier this month, said some complaints may turn out to be exaggerated, but “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
He acknowledged that CATS has an old fleet. The board has agreed to purchase 12 new buses by the end of the year, but Deville said after the meeting he wants to lease up to 20 more.
He is still trying to nail down the finances but wants to keep the leased vehicles for a year or two while the system buys new vehicles. The board recently approved a plan to replace the fleet through staggered purchases over the next five years, so leases would bridge the gap, Deville said.
However, Deville emphasized he still has to get the plan approved by the board, which has given him a four-month contract while it looks for a permanent replacement for outgoing CEO Bob Mirabito. Board Chairman Jim Brandt confirmed last week that CATS will not turn management of the system over to a private company.
When reached by phone after the meeting, local union President Katie Guy said she had not yet heard of Deville’s plans for leased vehicles but would want to know what kind of vehicles may be used.
International ATU representative Anthony Garland has said CATS must do more than just buy new equipment. He has advocated for more employee training, preventative maintenance and standardized procedures for handling employee concerns.
Garland also reiterated Tuesday that CATS needs enough equipment and savvy not to send operators home when they report potentially unsafe equipment.
Deville said Tuesday that after seeing media coverage of a previous meeting with the union, riders may fear for their safety, adding he “can sense that the personal injury attorneys are licking their chops.”
As workers picketed outside Tuesday with signs like “Don’t be blinded, be safety minded,” he defended CATS’s policies.
“Employees are not forced to take out equipment that is not safe,” Deville said.
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