On the bus in Miami-Dade, and not happy about it

Terrell Samuels cleans buses at the Rosa Parks Central Bus Transportation Building on Wednesday, September 23, 2015.
Terrell Samuels cleans buses at the Rosa Parks Central Bus Transportation Building on Wednesday, September 23, 2015.

On a recent Thursday morning, Javier Zerpa waited at the bus stop for a familiar ritual: watching the 27 bus miss its arrival time. The advertised 7:54 a.m. stop came and went, then the 8:09 a.m., then the 8:24 a.m. and finally the 8:39 a.m.

“Forget the schedule,” said Zerpa, who catches the 27 to the Coconut Grove Metrorail station for the train that takes him to a banking job on Brickell Avenue. “The schedule doesn’t work.”

Zerpa has company in wondering where the 27 bus might be on its daily journey up and down 27th Avenue. Since the start of 2014, the route has received more than 300 complaints of missing or late buses.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez has pledged to usher in an era of cleaner and more efficient buses in Florida’s largest transit system, thanks to an influx of new vehicles, technological upgrades, more scrubbing and a reworking of route maps and schedules. Bus passengers have offered thousands of reasons why creating more enticing buses would be so welcome and the task so difficult.

The Miami Herald requested all complaints filed by bus passengers since the start of 2014. Through July of this year, there were nearly 27,000 of them registered via email, online and call center. That’s roughly 47 per day, offering the most detailed look available at what irks, enrages and horrifies the system’s 210,000 daily passengers.

On a December morning somewhere between South Miami and Florida City, a passenger on the 38 Express bus reported two cockroaches crawling on her baby. In early February, someone on Little Havana’s 207 bus complained of an operator driving six blocks down Seventh Avenue “eating a fruit cup with a spoon the whole ride.”

A single father of a 2-year-old wrote about the 7 bus consistently running as much as 45 minutes behind schedule on its way from downtown Miami to the Dolphin Mall. “I depend on this route to get to work,” the man wrote. “I hope if I get fired the dept. of transit is willing to hire me cause I need money to feed my son.”

Interactive database: Read the complaints

Bus gripes were enough of an issue that Gimenez highlighted dollars for bus cleaning when he unveiled his 2016 budget in July.

“I don’t care how old they are. They have to be clean,” said Gimenez, who is up for reelection next year. “And they have to be safe. And they have to be on time.”

Buses not arriving as planned drive the bulk of the complaints in the county database. The bus delays are a side effect of Miami-Dade’s congested roads and a county fleet that’s aging, suffering more breakdowns than most large transit systems do, and one that is not nearly as large as leaders had promised when they convinced voters to approve a new transportation sales tax in 2002.

Much of the money from that half-percent tax originally earmarked for new buses has instead been used to subsidize bus operations in recent years. That has eased pressure on the county’s general fund, the pool of property taxes and other dollars that sustains the Miami-Dade Transit Department.

In explaining the bus system’s shortcomings, Gimenez aides point to the prior administration’s decision to shift the transit tax, the budget squeeze caused by the housing crash and needlessly high payroll costs from a transit union contract that drives up overtime pay and makes hiring part-time drivers more difficult.

Union leaders cite austerity measures by Gimenez, who championed a tax cut when he took office in 2011, and chronic underfunding of a bus system that now struggles just to get its entire fleet moving each day — much less arriving on time.

“The equipment is deplorable,” said Clarence Washington, head of the county’s transit union. “We’re running buses well beyond their age limit.”

This year did see Miami-Dade’s largest bus purchase since 2007, with 43 extra-long buses brought aboard for the county’s busiest routes. With 20 more like them on the way, the 60-foot buses take longer to fill up than the 40-foot vehicles that are the fleet standard.

“They’ve given people a greater sense of hope,” said County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who represents parts of southern Miami-Dade. “The express buses aren’t passing them by.”

Miami-Dade plans to buy up to 300 regular-sized buses — enough to replace more than a third of its current 815-vehicle fleet — once it works through a contract to use vehicles powered by compressed natural gas. That high-profile procurement is winding its way to county commissioners for a vote early next year.

When Zerpa was left waiting for the 27 to take him to Coconut Grove, transit officials were dealing with two broken-down buses on his route, said spokeswoman Karla Damian. One had an engine failure, the other had a problem with the “kneeling” function that accommodates passengers unable to take larger steps. The system usually has two standby buses for relief, but Damian said those were “being used elsewhere” that morning.

Miami-Dade’s bus fleet saw more than 16,500 breakdowns in 2013, according to the National Transit Database. Among systems in the database serving more than 2 million residents, only bus fleets in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York saw more mechanical failures. Miami-Dade administrators hoped the system could log 4,000 service miles between breakdowns in 2015, but budget documents released in September had the system on track to fall about 17 percent short of that goal. (Transit says the latest forecast predicts a miss of 13 percent.)

The county’s half-percent transportation sales tax was originally designed to add 635 buses to the fleet. More than a decade after votes approved the tax in 2002, the county’s bus fleet has grown by less than 200 vehicles. In 2009, under then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez, the county agreed to use more of the tax to subsidize transit operations — with most of that money supporting the bus system.

Even with the extra tax dollars, Transit faced a revenue crunch. To cover shortfalls elsewhere in the county, Gimenez’s 2015 budget held back a planned $5.8 million increase for Transit’s $168 million general fund allocations. A 2014 report on complaints about late buses cited “current fiscal restraints” as one of the problems, along with union rules making it harder to reassign bus drivers to different routes on short notice.

Gimenez restored Transit’s increase this year but has also pledged to end the agency’s current $100 million operating subsidy from transportation taxes by 2020. Backed by a county oversight board and other leaders who endorse the shift, Gimenez wants the operation subsidies spent on Transit projects included in the 2002 plan. The county’s budget forecasts hinge on an expanding economy should providing enough dollars in transit to make up for the lost sales tax money.

New buses are one of a string of upgrades Transit administrators say will significantly improve commutes for bus passengers. Alice Bravo, Gimenez’s new Transit chief, is overseeing a reworking of arrival times of the county’s 12 busiest routes, which may see some underused stops retired.

This year saw traffic lights synced to the bus system’s tracking software in the Kendall area so eight intersections are designed to remain green as a bus approaches. A little-noticed upgrade already allows smartphone tracking on nine of the county’s more than 90 named routes, with the rest set to accommodate the technology by spring. The app will give actual arrival times based on bus position, freeing passengers from having to hover near a stop while they wait.

“Everyone wants more control of their time,” said Bravo, a former transportation engineer and administrator for the state. She said the county’s monthly complaint reports helped her settle on a baseline goal for the transit system of being “clean, safe and reliable” after taking the job in July. “Every complaint is important,” she said. “We need to address them to the best extent we can.”

The Herald’s data shows complaints are up 14 percent for the first half of 2015, even as bus ridership is down five percent. Transit sorts complaints into more than 70 categories, based on the nature of the complaint or compliment. Gripes tied to late or missing buses took the top two slots and accounted for four out of every 10 complaints in the county data. The Herald consolidated the categories into a dozen umbrella headings, and the one involving bus schedules made up nearly half of the total complaints.

“It’s pretty much gotten to the point where I’m just so grateful when a bus shows up,” said Lisa Kovalsky, a self-described frequent complainer who takes the 204 bus to the Dadeland North Metrorail station on most workdays. The return trip gets miserable, she said, when that first bus in the afternoon fails to show. “It’s going to be like a sardine can. You’ve got two or three busloads of people waiting to get on.”

Administrators say a turnaround is already under way for some of the most horrifying gripes in the database: those describing dirty buses.

“I’ve had Chinese food — rice with honey chicken — spread on the seat,” said Jorge Villazon, superintendent of bus maintenance. “We get a lot of chicken bones. Banana peels. Fruit — with an apple, they just toss the core.”

Passengers complained of finding blood, human waste and hygiene products on bus floors and seats. Bus stops are cited for overflowing trash cans, foul smells and urgently needed cleanups. “Disgusting bus with many roaches … I literally had 2 crawling on me,” another passenger wrote from the No. 88 bus on Feb. 5. “Mind you I have a phobia of roaches.”

Interactive database: Read the complaints

Buses are sprayed with insecticide roughly once a month and fumigated for roaches about every 10 weeks. When Transit receives an insect complaint about a bus, it gets pulled in for treatment, Villazon said.

This summer, Transit added a shift of workers at each of the county’s three bus depots to clear out trash from the vehicles throughout the day and dispatched janitorial crews to major bus hubs throughout the county. Administrators say they’re seeing buses arrive cleaner at night. The Herald’s data shows an encouraging trend: Insect complaints have been dropping all year, from 30 in January to five in June and just one in July.

Miami-Dade’s complaints archives help illustrate the central role buses play in thousands of residents’ lives. “Is there any way possible to send more Route 38 buses out?” a passenger wrote on May 16. “They’re entirely packed and it’s nearly impossible for me to board, leaving me the option to either spend another $30 on a taxi, or be late to work.”

The complaint files also reinforce one of the biggest obstacles facing bus systems across the country: perceptions that they represent the bottom rung of public transit.

“Helen, I don’t know a lot of people who ride buses,” Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the county commissioner who heads the county’s Transit and Mobility committee, told WPBT host Helen Aguirre Ferré on March 20 while discussing his plan to create a new east-west rail line to the western suburbs. “I don’t know a lot of people that are interested in riding buses.”

For every person in a Metrorail car, there are three on a bus. Miami International Airport broke a record last year with 41 million passengers, but the county’s bus fleet carried roughly that many people by the end of June. More people ride on a county bus in one month than board cruise ships all year at PortMiami.

Transit experts say Bovo’s sentiments generally capture the image problems buses face nationwide. “America has kind of set a standard that buses are for poor people,” said Sarah Kaufman, assistant director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University. She said cities with reliable bus systems tend to also have more popular ones. “Chicago has a really robust bus system and people rely on it. It doesn’t have the stigma that it does in other places.”

Randy Plant, a nonprofit executive in Coral Gables, opted to go car-free when he moved to South Beach 20 years ago. He became such a frequent complainer to Miami-Dade’s Transit system in the years that followed that he helped launch the @FixMetroMDT Twitter account, which retweets commuter frustrations throughout the day.

On April 7, he used Transit’s app to complain about a driver on an idling 120 bus leaving the wheel only to come back with a bag of chips. “While he was gone,” Plant wrote, “another 120 MAX bus arrived and left before the driver came back. … Why do I have to wait for a driver to get a snack when another bus is available?”

His submission was one of about 4,000 tied to driver conduct, making up about 14 percent of all complaints. “The bus driver just stopped and got off the bus to enter Burger King,” a passenger on the 87 route wrote on June 30. “Doesn’t he already have a scheduled lunch/break time where another driver can continue on driving? Seems kind of disrespectful.”

Miami-Dade’s transit union blames unrealistic scheduling for many of the system’s problems, including drivers needing to exit the bus at inconvenient times. “Our operators don’t get to the end of the line when they should,” said Washington, the union president.

He said he encourages drivers to tell passengers they “need a minute” before exiting the bus for a break mid-route — a pit stop to use the bathroom and, if needed, to purchase carryout for eating at the end of the route. “Most people don’t have a problem,” he said, “with someone going in, using the bathroom and coming out carrying a bag.”

Washington said other side effects of Miami-Dade’s aging bus fleet get blamed on drivers — such as when a faulty wheelchair lift causes an operator to be accused of not deploying it, or when a breakdown leaves the other buses so full that drivers fail to make their required stops. He criticized the Gimenez administration for under-staffing Transit’s maintenance crew, when even more mechanics are needed as the buses age.

“We don’t have enough people to keep this raggedy fleet running,” Washington said.

The Herald’s data also includes some kind words amid the crush of criticism. There were nearly 1,200 complimentary submissions by bus passengers in addition to the 26,712 complaints in the Herald’s data.

Last April, a passenger on the 287 bus serving the Dadeland South Metrorail station wrote to commend an operator who helped a passenger in a wheelchair exit.

“Perfectly expected, one would say, but what took place afterward was totally unexpected,” the passenger wrote of the unidentified operator. “The driver helped wheel the passenger to the crosswalk and escorted him safely to the opposite side of the road.”

On April 10, a passenger reported boarding the 93 bus to find driver Ricky Jinks concerned about a woman with a large suitcase who seemed a little lost. The woman spoke Spanish, and Jinks did not. So he asked another Spanish-speaking passenger to be the intermediary as he figured out which stop would be best for her.

“I was so impressed and proud at how Mr. Jinks cared for his passenger that I had to let management know,” the passenger wrote. “This act of kindness took me by surprise.”

This story utilized the Public Insight Network to contact bus riders in Miami-Dade.

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