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Charm City Circulator's new operator has not trained all drivers, faces persistent bus shortage

The new vendor for the Charm City Circulator has not trained all of its drivers as required and has hired another shuttle company to run one of its four routes because of a persistent shortage of buses. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

The Charm City Circulator’s new operator has not yet trained all its drivers as required and has hired another shuttle company to run one of the four routes because of a persistent shortage of buses, city and company officials confirmed in response to an inquiry by The Baltimore Sun.

The city hired RMA Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation, a Rockville-based limousine and coach bus company, in October to take over the system under an emergency contract after suing the previous operator, alleging over-billing. Baltimore has since extended that contract and paid the company $3.4 million.

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Four months later, a quarter of the Circulator’s drivers have not completed all 160 hours, or four weeks, of safety training required in the contract to operate the service, according to the Baltimore Department of Transportation, which manages the service.

“Many still need to go through that training,” RMA Worldwide senior vice president Art Miesemer acknowledged in an interview. “They all have had or will be taking the 160-hour training. In the meantime, everybody is receiving their background checks and drug and alcohol screenings.”

Due to a shortage of buses, the company has subcontracted DTS Worldwide Transportation, another luxury chauffeur service, to run a pair of buses on the Green Route, from City Hall to Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital, Miesemer confirmed.

A representative of DTS Worldwide referred questions about the Circulator to RMA.

With half of the dozen city-owned Circulator buses out of service for needed maintenance, RMA has had to play “a little bit of musical vehicles,” Miesemer said, patching the gaps with its chauffeur buses and the subcontractor’s.

“We supplement those buses with our own vehicles,” he said. “We’re not yet at 100-percent capacity, but we’re working every day to get more buses up and running.”

Baltimore Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau blamed the bus shortage on the previous operator, Transdev, which she said did not perform the required maintenance on the city-owned buses. Baltimore is suing Transdev, alleging the company overbilled the city $20 million for thousands of hours the service had not operated since 2010.

A Transdev spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

When RMA took over, Miesemer said, no one knew how much maintenance the city’s Circulator buses needed. The word from the city, however, was clear, he said: “Get these vehicles on the road as quickly as possible.”

The city Department of Transportation limited the service in the first week with less than 24 hours’ notice to riders to perform safety testing and other evaluations.

Four months later, Miesemer said, the system remains “a work in progress.”

“We’re working around the clock to make sure we have sufficient vehicles to be moving people without any extended wait,” he said.

Three Circulator drivers approached The Baltimore Sun with concerns about the lack of driver training and qualification, the shortage of buses and the company’s preparedness to run a city transit system. They asked not to be named for fear of retribution from management.

The drivers said some needed bus repairs have gone unresolved after being pointed out by drivers.

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“It’s always a 10-alarm blaze every day,” one driver said. “When our safety is put at risk, the safety of our passengers is put at risk.”

The company is working to correct any issues that arise “right away,” Miesemer said.

“We understand that there have been challenges, and we understand everybody wants to see perfection,” he said. “That’s what we’re working toward as quickly as we can. We’re making strides each day.”

The “Safety” section of the Charm City Circulator contract requires its vendor to develop and implement a “comprehensive driver safety program,” based on 2009 best-practice recommendations from the American Public Transit Association.

At a minimum, the contract says, the company must provide a “complete bus operator training program before operation of any revenue service with a minimum of 160 hours [of] training including a minimum of 80 hours [of] bus operations and route familiarization.” It also requires drug-and-alcohol testing and annual driver safety re-training “with a minimum of 8 hours per operator.”

While not all the drivers have completed the required 160 hours, “all drivers are properly trained,” German Vigil, a city Department of Transportation spokesman, said in a statement. The vendor and the city “have been working together on a comprehensive training program” under the emergency contract, he added.

Miesemer and Vigil did not respond to an emailed follow-up request for a copy of documentation of the driver safety program, such as a driver’s manual or a syllabus. They also did not respond to a request for a copy of the emergency contract.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said in a phone interview that RMA’s Circulator drivers all have their commercial drivers’ licenses, as required, and the driver training emphasizes customer service, CPR, as well as bus operations and route knowledge.

“All the drivers are currently certified,” Pugh said. “They’re taking our bus drivers to a higher level.”

Maryland and federal law allows jurisdictions to set their own bus driver training requirements. But the city’s four-week program is less rigorous than the 10-week, 400-hour training program the Maryland Transit Administration requires for its drivers before they can take the wheel and drive passengers.

The MTA’s driver training includes 100 hours in the classroom and another 100 hours behind the wheel, as well as 40 hours each of commercial driver’s license testing/training, customer service, night-time driving, operations training, and final exams and other remaining tasks, said MTA spokeswoman Veronica Battisti.

Like Circulator drivers, MTA drivers must have a Maryland commercial driver’s license with a passenger transport license in addition to the training.

Pourciau pledged to investigate why the city requires less than half as much training for Circulator drivers as the state does for the service’s MTA counterparts.

“I’ll delve into what the difference is, and we’ll make sure that there is no reason for concern,” the city’s transportation director said.

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To address the bus shortage, Miesemer said, the city is developing plans to order six new buses for the Circulator this year, six more next year, and then three per year after that, until it has a full working fleet.

Vigil declined to confirm those plans.

“We are in the process of making that determination,” he said.

In business 30 years, RMA got its start with limousine rentals and chauffeuring, and since expanded into passenger shuttles and coach buses. It operates shuttle systems at the George Washington University and in Bethesda and Friendship Heights, Miesemer said.

With a focus on customer service, RMA has promoted the Charm City Circulator app, which shows the buses’ locations on their routes, and seen a rise in rider compliments, he said.

Destiny Freeman, 19, of Curtis Bay, said she takes the Circulator’s Purple or Green routes about once a week. She’s noticed the hodgepodge of buses but not any significant drop-off in service.

As a rider, though, Freeman was upset to hear about the lack of driver training.

“It’s wrong,” she said. “At the end of the day, they are putting people’s lives in jeopardy. … Anything can go wrong.”

The city Department of Transportation “will continue to work proactively to improve the performance of the Charm City Circulator during this emergency contract,” Vigil said.

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