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Smelly Buses

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

For years now, the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, the doughty local-transit lobby, has rabble-roused for more buses to carry the vast majority of Los Angeles–area transit users. Now, disclosures in a recent report from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s inspector general suggest that the union might also take interest in just how well the MTA checks those new buses for major manufacturing flaws. Which is, if a recent 250-bus sample in an official audit proves anything, not very well at all.

"I think it speaks for itself," said MTA Inspector General Arthur Sinai, declining further comment on his January 4 report to the MTA board, which concentrated on a recent, 250-vehicle delivery from a prime MTA contractor.

The audit found both unacknowl edged, fleetwide problems with delivered coaches and a revolving-door policy permitting inspectors responsible for signing off on the quality of buses delivered to the MTA to take jobs with the contractor. The inspection also found that some of the MTA inspectors tended to cook their expense accounts when visiting the contractor’s Colorado bus plant.

Sinai’s report cited a dozen chronic defects on a clutch of 250 new Neoplan buses delivered between 1997 and 1999. These ranged from exhaust-pipe and engine-oil reservoir problems to failing door structures and balky wheelchair lifts. None of these problems were remedied by the manufacturer.

Although Neoplan, the manufacturer, did help with a half-dozen other problems, the report complained that, in part due to imprecise record keeping — including a faulty checklist — many of these problems went unfixed for long periods. Or, if they were repaired, the work was often done at MTA expense instead of under the available warranty. Some of these warranty claims were refused by the manufacturer due to the MTA’s lateness in processing the complaint, Sinai’s report alleged.

"Shortly after the buses were received and placed in service, many serious and recurring failures occurred," the report said of the Neoplan coaches, while also noting that over time, most of the problems had been resolved by MTA management’s "aggressive corrective action."

The buses were supplied by Neoplan USA of Lamar, Colorado, a firm that has been a major bus contractor for the MTA (and its predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District) since the early 1980s. In recent years, a pattern of many operating problems — officially referred to as "a high problem-occurrence rate" — emerged with some of Neoplan’s alcohol- (methanol and ethanol)
fueled buses. Sinai’s report suggested that during this period, the relationship between Neoplan and MTA procurement’s on-site staff may have become somewhat irregular. Three of the MTA inspection personnel, for instance, moved on to take jobs with Neoplan immediately after leaving the MTA. In one case cited, the employee took the Neoplan job less than a month after leaving the transit agency. Sinai’s report queried whether these career moves violated state conflict-of-interest laws.

MTA inspectors are expected to monitor the assembly and final rollout of the buses in the Lamar plant. But the report stated, "[W]e could not locate any written policies and procedures for the [MTA’s on-site] Bus Inspection Program. This indicated to us that the bus inspectors had no formal written guidelines and performance measurements to follow for the inspections they performed."

A checklist was used, but the report noted that for 249 of the 250 buses in the contract, "one or more pages of the bus inspection form were missing from . . . the file." Also noted were irregularities in the records — such as sign-offs on weekends, when the plant was actually closed.

According to a Lamar city spokesperson, Neoplan is by far the largest industry and biggest employer in Prowers County, Colorado, the predominantly agricultural jurisdiction of which Lamar is the county seat. It’s a town of just 8,563, with only a small number of restaurants, but the report alleged that some MTA staffers made the most of their time up there. Sinai stated that 24 MTA employees (at least 16 of whom were in the bus-inspection program) fudged their Lamar travel and expense accounts to the total tune of nearly $10,000 during a seven-month period ending in 1997. The figure could well have been higher, but only one of the Lamar eateries frequented by the MTA kept records adequate to provide a paper trail, Sinai said. One of these alleged MTA account padders, an engineer, was charged in Los Angeles last year with grand theft. That case is still pending, according to the report.

Sinai’s report recommended that the MTA radically improve its bus-inspection program, with better internal controls and a process that would better detect production-line flaws "and trigger immediate corrective action." It also asked that "MTA officers and employees [be] aware of MTA policies on post-employment restrictions, conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety."

In a response to Sinai, MTA Chief Executive Officer Julian Burke said that his office had already acted on an earlier draft of the inspector general’s report by taking measures that included disciplining employees for ethical violations and transferring the bus-inspection program from MTA procurement to its operations department.

In his memorandum, Burke added that the MTA now also sought to "engage an independent bus inspector contractor," either to work with or instead of MTA teams. Burke further promised to provide Sinai with a "final corrective action plan" within 90 days.


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