Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade Transit’s budget woes cited in lawsuit over bus driver killed in 2014

Budget challenges in Miami-Dade’s transit agency and the county’s aging bus fleet are cited in a lawsuit filed by the estate of a bus driver killed in 2014 after a safety alarm failed to sound when she didn’t engage a parking brake.
Budget challenges in Miami-Dade’s transit agency and the county’s aging bus fleet are cited in a lawsuit filed by the estate of a bus driver killed in 2014 after a safety alarm failed to sound when she didn’t engage a parking brake. Miami Herald file photo

When bus driver Laquita Alvin was crushed by a rolling Miami-Dade bus with a disabled safety brake, a chronically underfunded transit budget had led to widespread maintenance issues, Alvin’s estate claims in a federal lawsuit.

Alvin died in late 2014 after the bus she was driving began rolling shortly after she got out of the vehicle during a break. She leaned in through the driver’s side window to close the bus doors, and that’s when the vehicle began rolling with her hanging on the side. The bus collided with another one, crushing the 36-year-old mother of three.

She hadn’t engaged the parking brake before leaving the bus, an oversight that’s supposed to trigger a built-in alarm that’s standard equipment for Miami-Dade buses. But the alarm had been disabled. Alvin’s death revealed that was also common practice, with vast majority of Miami-Dade’s buses having disabled alarms.

The faulty alarms drew headlines after the Dec. 5, 2014 fatality. County officials blamed drivers for cutting wires to the alarms because of malfunctions that set off the jarring warning sounds. The transit union faulted underfunded maintenance budgets for the safety devices not working.

Lawyers for Alvin’s estate wrote Miami-Dade Transit in late 2015 with notice of a claim for damages over her death. The letter cited 10 “runaway bus incidents” in the year before Alvin’s death, and said 92 percent of the 456 buses outfitted for alarms had either broken or disabled alarms.

It also claimed the county’s bus repair center was short 40 mechanics. In the federal suit against Miami-Dade, which seeks unspecified damages, Alvin’s estate claims that most county buses have exceeded their recommended lifespan. “However, county officials maintain that these aged buses must remain within the active fleet due to extreme county financial constraints,” the suit says.

County representatives declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. Miami-Dade has struggled to keep up with rising expenses in its transit system, and uses a half-cent sales tax intended for expansion projects to subsidize operations. The latest budget for the $590 million-a-year agency lists about $15 million in unfunded operational expenses. About 70 percent of the bus fleet in 2017 exceed federal guidelines for retiring buses after 12 years or 500,000 miles, according to budget documents.

Administration officials say the disabled bus alarms were addressed after Alvin’s death, and that the issue of alarms being vulnerable to tampering will be solved as the county continues replacing its fleet of more than 800 buses with modern vehicles. County commissioners this year approved purchasing 300 buses powered by compressed natural gas.

A lawyer for Alvin’s estate did not respond to a request for comment.

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