Fairfield's Bumpy Road to Privatized Transit
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Almost every local government looks for ways to control cost and protect tax dollars. When it comes to saving money on transit however, cities might want to talk to the folks in the Solano County city of Fairfield on tips for what to do--or not to do.
Fairfield outsourced its transit service to a company that's been considered a rising star in the industry. But the city ended up penalizing the company nearly 300 times for problems like late service and causing too many accidents.
California Watch reporter Zusha Elinson researched this cautionary tale for a story: Private contractor struggles to deliver public bus service, records show. Elinson discussed the story with KQED's Joshua Johnson.
Johnson: Now the company that Fairfield contracted with, MV Transportation, is based in Dallas. And it calls itself the largest privately owned contractor in the country. What were Fairfield's expectations when it signed the deal?
Elinson: It was almost natural that Fairfield would use MV Transportation, because at the time MV was based in Fairfield. The big benefit that a lot of transit officials say is that if you have a contract with a company, you can really demand a level of service. But what turned out to happen is that it was very difficult to hold MV to their contract.
Johnson: What went wrong with the relationship? When did the city realize they had a serious problem?
Elinson: The transit manager there was George Fink. He came up with a new contract with a number of other officials, and in it they put a lot of penalties for poor service because they were worried about the possibility of poor service. And once that contract started in 2008, they started to realize the company was not keeping to that contract. The buses were coming late, there were too many accidents, they didn't put in a GPS system. But what happened is that MV Transportation was a very politically connected company in Fairfield. And when the transit manager fined them, they instead went to the City Council and tried to overrule him.
Johnson: Fairfield’s former transportation manager George Fink told you he tried to rein them in and was prevented from doing so. Were you able through your reporting to determine if there was any truth to that? Was he really politically bound, were his hands really tied in that way or was there something more to it?
Elinson: Of course there are many shades to the story, but I will say this. We found through looking at many documents that they did kill an audit that Fink had ordered of the company. He was also ordered to stop inspecting buses -- he would inspect them for cleanliness and that sort of thing -- because they were resulting in too many fines. One of Mr. Fink's direct supervisors said that Fink was known to be a stickler, a letter-of-the-law type of guy. He thought sometimes that Fink was reading too much into the contract and that sort of thing.
Johnson: Do you see other cities that are either thinking about outsourcing their transit lines, or activiely working to outsource?
Elinson: There has been this trend of outsourcing public transit. You might think in the Bay Area it wouldn't happen, because there are such strong public employee unions, and bus drivers unions hate outsourcing because it usually means wages and benefits go down. But even in the Bay Area there are transit agencies that are looking at this. Marin County took a look at this last summer, and two cities in Alameda County, Newark and Fremont. They're actually looking at MV, because MV runs the transit in the surrounding areas that they'd be combining with.
Johnson: What ultimately happened between Fairfield and MV Transportation? Is the company still handling transit there or did they kill that relationship?
Elinson: Fink left out of frustration, and now the transit manager there, Wayne Lewis, says that things are improving. But at the same time, a couple of audits done by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission have shown that service is not that good. In fact, we went to Fairfield and talked to people quite a bit and asked them what they thought of their bus service. People in general told us it's very late. They wait a long time for buses. It's interesting, because the name of the transportation agency is FAST, but a lot of them quarrel with that idea.