TAMPA — Hillsborough bus drivers passed out fliers at a downtown transit stop Wednesday telling riders their buses are regularly sent out with brakes that don't work and poor ventilation systems that expose them to dangerous diesel exhaust.
But Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority interim CEO Jeff Seward said those claims are false and that it is not a coincidence that bus drivers took this action while the union is in contract negotiations. Seward called the protest an “unscrupulous negotiating tactic.”
“I won’t dispute the fact that we have an aging fleet,” Seward said. “But I want to assure riders, their safety is our number one concern. It has been, we’ve committed to it. It always will be.”
Still, a half dozen bus drivers, claiming to represent the feelings of 400 other drivers in the local Amalgamated Transit Union, told riders a different story Wednesday.
Driver and local union organizer Denny Crisostomo, 34, gathered with her coworkers to hand out fliers at Marion Transit Center telling riders that the bus agency is “cutting corners that threaten the safety and health of riders and workers.” The flier described bad brakes, mold on vehicles and exhaust fumes that drivers say make them nauseous and dizzy.
Crisostomo and others said they collected contact information from more than 180 riders and asked them to contact agency officials about the concerns.
While many riders listened to the bus drivers and expressed their support, none of those questioned by the Tampa Bay Times said they felt unsafe or had experienced the concerns listed on the flier.
“I think it's great that the drivers would come here to inform the riders about these issues,” said James Ascher, 58, who has ridden the bus in Tampa for 40 years. “I haven't seen these repair issues they mentioned.”
Seward said the Florida Department of Transportation conducted an audit of the agency's maintenance and safety practices less than a year ago and found no violations in its upkeep of vehicle exhausts, brakes or mold.
The bus agency is poised to more than double its budget after voters approved a one-cent transportation sales tax in November that would generate more than $130 million each year. Seward said it is not a coincidence to him that bus drivers slowed the contract negotiations and have raised other issues “once the union knew the surtax was going to be a reality.”
Crisostomo and other bus drivers voiced similar safety concerns at the agency's December board meeting. Tampa City Council member and board member Mike Suarez asked staff to prepare a comprehensive safety report. That report was supposed to be shared with the board in February, but the presentation was postponed until March.
Suarez said Wednesday that he "absolutely" is concerned about the condition of the buses, primarily with an older fleet.
“It seems like they were just pushing buses back on the road without fixing the vehicle,” Suarez said. “Does that mean the bus is unsafe? Maybe not. But it does make it unsafe for the driver.”
Seward said each bus in the 172-vehicle fleet receives a thorough inspection every 6,000 miles. Paratransit vehicles are inspected every 5,000 miles. Seward said the inspection goes "above and beyond" state requirements and national industry standards, evaluating more criteria than required by state law.
But the bus drivers protesting the agency's safety record Wednesday said vehicles will remain in service even after an operator has reported an issue.
“They don't want to pull the buses off the road,” driver Keith Blake, 51, said. “When we tell them about a problem, they're not fixing it.”
Blake and two other drivers said managers who were sent to the Marion Transit Center to oversee the protest threatened them with an internal investigation that could result in drivers losing out on work and pay. Elaine Caraballo, 48, chose to leave the bus stop and wait in her car rather than risk retaliation.
“It's scary because they can keep your badge and have you sitting for weeks and weeks without pay,” Caraballo said. “I'll be tossing and turning all night.”
Seward said the employees “absolutely had the right” to protest and share their concerns while off-duty and not in company uniform. He said no employee will face repercussions for their actions Wednesday.
“We will reiterate to our managers and supervising staff that employees have the right to do this,” Seward said. “They may not like the fact that they do it, but they have the right to do it and we will be respectful of that right.”
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.