Summit Stage drivers: Problem buses are sent back on the road in Summit County
Ryan Summerlin March 29, 2013
FRISCO – Summit Stage driver Mark Felber was operating a local bus route when he noticed a bright yellow check-engine light glowing on the dashboard.
He called in the problem but was told to keep driving. There were no backup buses available.
The following afternoon, a red light came on.
Felber was again told to keep driving.
Multiple Summit Stage bus drivers have reported reoccurring maintenance and mechanical problems on the vehicles, from loose lug nuts and doors that won’t open to alarms and warning lights.
“We’ve had a string of issues,” Felber said. “Drivers still get told to deal with malfunctioning buses because there are no spare buses.”
Officials say there are spare buses but not as many as there used to be. The Summit Stage fleet has been reduced by six buses and another bus is out of commission after a crash earlier this year. The bus driver was not at fault in the collision.
County officials who oversee the administration of the Summit Stage say drivers’ reports of vehicle problems or maintenance concerns are always conveyed immediately to mechanics with a private company. If the mechanic decides the issue can wait until the vehicle’s next visit to the shop, the bus remains on the road.
“Whenever we have a driver call in with a maintenance issue, we take caution to check with a mechanic and describe the problem,” assistant county manager Thad Noll said.
But drivers also question the capability of those mechanics.
In 2011, Summit County government outsourced the maintenance of its entire fleet, including the Summit Stage, to a private company called First Vehicle Services.
When First Vehicle began maintaining the Summit Stage fleet, all but three of the county’s mechanics were hired on with the new company. Two years later, drivers say none of those original mechanics remain.
Drivers say their replacements don’t have the same level of experience.
“It seems like the problem they’re having is they can’t find any mechanics,” driver Dave Ross said. “And the mechanics they do have are great people, don’t get me wrong; they just don’t have as much experience as they ideally should. Combine that with the cost of living up here, they cannot keep the place staffed.”
First Vehicle declined to comment on the local turnover rate, saying only it is the company’s goal to provide customers with dedicated and highly-trained maintenance professionals.
Contracting vehicle maintenance to a private company was introduced as a cost-saving measure during the recession. The cost of maintenance increased in the year that followed by more than $250,000, though county officials attributed the increased expense to the aging fleet’s existing problems, which had to be fixed when First Vehicle took over repairs two years ago.
But drivers say the vehicles aren’t noticeably more reliable than they were before.
“We’d be out on the road and we’d have a problem,” recently retired driver and president of the local union Cathy Brosius said. “And we’d hear that from other drivers that it was a problem the day before and the day before that.”
Representatives of First Vehicle, which manages a team of mechanics who work out of the county-owned maintenance building in Frisco, said buses with reported maintenance problems are always pulled from circulation immediately.
“The safety and security of the county drivers and their passengers is a top priority for our maintenance team and something we take great pride in,” spokesman Timothy Stokes stated in an email. “Any time a driver or passenger reports an issue with any vehicle we maintain it is our practice to immediately remove that vehicle from service and correct the issue before that vehicle is permitted to go back into the fleet.”
First Vehicle is a national company that claims to manage more than 38,000 vehicles and promises to provide “solutions that reduce costs, create efficiencies and increase reliability,” according to its website.
The county is exploring the possibility of contracting the management of the Summit Stage operation, and has discussed the idea with First Vehicle.