Photo | Lagniappe

The Mobile City Council approved a $396,215 three-year contract with First Transit to take over the management of the city’s public bus system.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Mobile City Council approved a contract with the Ohio-based bus operator First Transit, but the company’s recent troubles in nearby Escambia County, Florida, have raised concerns among public transportation advocates.

The council approved the $396,215 three-year contract, which allows First Transit to take over the management of WAVE, the city’s public bus system. The contract was the least expensive of three options, and officials were excited about reports the service would be more efficient than its predecessor, McDonald Transit.

Antonie Maiben, president of the local transit union, has concerns about the agreement, though, and spoke before the council’s vote Tuesday about recent problems with First Transit’s operations in Washington, D.C., Escambia County, Florida, and Monroe, Louisiana.

Maiben is concerned the city didn’t do the necessary research before picking the lowest bidder.

“I understand they’re going to be able to save you guys $350,000 a year in liability insurance, but think about that. There’s a reason why that savings is there,” Maiben said. “Is that going to fall on the backs of the citizens, passengers not being able to catch the bus or employees being laid off?”

Councilman Fred Richardson, who served on a committee that reviewed First Transit’s proposal, said the agreement would affect McDonald employees and that it would rely on the buses and equipment the city already has.

Richardson said the company’s role would only be to manage the existing WAVE system, and equipment concerns from First Transit operations in other states wouldn’t be an issue in Mobile.

“First transit is not going to bring one bus here. It’s our buses. It’s our equipment,” Richardson said. “We’re just bringing them in to manage the system, and it’s just two or three of them. Every person working under McDonald Transit will still remain an employee in that same position.”

However, Maiben seem to suggest that using the city’s equipment would solve all the problems facing the WAVE transit. After the city cut funding from the service’s budget in 2016, McDonald Transit had to alter some routes in Mobile and cut some outside the city altogether.

Maiben has argued the city should have given McDonald a better opportunity to succeed.

First Transit was replaced in the nation’s capital over safety concerns, according to a story in The Washington Post. Issues with payroll, treatment of employees and expense ultimately did the company in in Florida.

Florida’s Escambia County Commission voted last year to take over control of its bus system, according to Mass Transit Director Mike Crittenden, to save money and make the system more efficient.

The county currently operates 20 routes, with daily average ridership of 5,700 on weekdays, and employs roughly 120 people in its public transit service.

Speaking with Lagniappe, Pensacola’s Amalgamated Transit Union President Michael Lowery also cited issues with pension contributions and treatment of employees as other problems First Transit had in Florida.

After the company took over Escambia County Area Transit, or the ECAT service, in 2012, Lowery said it was discovered First Transit hadn’t been properly contributing to employees’ 401(k) plans, though that issue has since been corrected, he added.

“That’s what lost the trust of the workers,” he said. “Right off the bat.”

Safety issues also kept coming up on First Transit’s watch. Issues with driving time also weighed on drivers, Lowery said, adding that, under First Transit, ECAT drivers didn’t have time between routes to use the restroom because “they had to rush.”

“They were running routes with lower ridership, instead of using different routes,” he added.

Under a management contract like the one Mobile has agreed to enter into, Lowery said there was no incentive for First Transit to make changes.

Lowery also mentioned an issue with employees’ health care that was costing the county thousands of dollars per employee per month. While it kept rates low for employees, it was expensive for the county, Lowery said.

First Transit Regional Vice President Jarod Varner said there are no planned cuts to employment when First Transit takes over locally, which is in line with what Richard said during the June 12 council meeting as well.

Varner did say the company would look at trends to determine where inefficiencies might lie within the system. Once the change is implemented, the system’s new manager will be Michael Chinn, who will relocate to Mobile from Dallas.