The majority of Washington, D.C., Circulator buses surveyed by an independent auditor were found to have serious safety and operational defects, according to a new report.
Bus drivers also said they flagged dozens of safety concerns to their superiors but that vehicles were often kept in use.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) hired the Transit Resource Center to conduct a safety review of the bus fleet in August 2015, but the findings were not made public until this week.
The union representing D.C. Circulator bus drivers said it was unaware of the audit until February, meaning DDOT and the mayor’s office have been aware of the problems for over six months, they said.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1764 received a copy of the report on Wednesday, before the D.C. Council got one.
The audit found that 95 percent of the buses inspected had an unacceptable safety problem that should be addressed before allowing the vehicle to be in service.
A total of 924 defects were discovered among the fleet, averaging 22 per vehicle, which the report labeled as “exceptionally high.”
Some of the safety issues included fuel leaks, cracked windshields, saturated brakes, broken wipers, emergency windows that don’t open and exhaust leaks into the bus.
“These are all items that can cause injury or death to a passenger,” Sesil Rubain, a transit union trustee, said in a phone interview. “The same buses are still on the road.”
Overall, the audit concluded that DDOT and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) failed to conduct oversight of First Transit, the company that operates the buses by contract. DDOT owns the fleet of vehicles while WMATA is in charge of overseeing the contractor.
"DDOT is actively monitoring the Circulator’s performance through our partnership with WMATA," an agency spokesperson said. "As a result of our maintenance audit, all safety sensitive issues are being addressed immediately with vehicles being pulled from service."
The revelation follows an unprecedented shutdown of another major city transit system last month. The Metrorail closed for over 24 hours in order to conduct emergency inspections following a tunnel fire that resembled a deadly Metro incident in January 2015.
The Metro, which WMATA operates, has been plagued by safety and oversight issues and began a new inspection process this month while it develops a broader safety plan.
ATU Local 1764, which is in collective bargaining negotiations with First Transit, conducted its own survey of buses last month. The report found 90 percent of the vehicles had defects that would require the vehicle to be pulled from service.
Some of the defects they discovered include doors hanging open, damaged mirrors, brakes reacting too slowly and engines emitting smoke. In one instance, a wheelchair ramp was fixed by tethering it with a seat belt.
DDOT revealed a second safety audit late Friday afternoon, which they say was completed in January and shows improvements since the initial audit in August.
Rubain maintains that the problems are still prevalent. He said some bus drivers Friday morning refused to drive a D.C. Circulator vehicle that had an expired inspection sticker.
“The drivers tell me every morning this is a big issue,” Rubain said.
—This story was updated at 4:45 p.m.