Bus contractors angrily defend performance

At meeting, operators say racism is behind stringent inspections

Clearer guidelines urged

March 01, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Saying they've been "nitpicked" by state inspectors, several of Baltimore's school bus contractors insisted to motor vehicle officials yesterday that city buses are not as problem-filled as inspection records show, and that clearer guidelines are needed.

Yesterday's meeting at a city schools office building in Northeast Baltimore occurred amid growing concerns that many city bus contractors are driving potentially unsafe buses. A recent review of state safety records by The Sun showed that city buses are more than twice as likely to have major defects as buses in area counties.

Three Motor Vehicle Administration officials, who are in charge of inspecting the state's 8,500 school buses, told about 20 city contractors that they need to do a better job with maintenance of their buses. But several of the contractors reacted angrily and said they believe that they are being singled out for more stringent inspections because they are minority-owned businesses.

"We're very offended," said Lillian Jackson, an independent city bus contractor. "We feel there is some racism involved."

MVA officials dismissed the racism claims and said city buses are given the same scrutiny as those in other jurisdictions.

"I frankly take that kind of accusation personally, and I can tell you it's just not true," said Dean Edwards, an MVA inspector who has spent 12 years examining buses across the state. Edwards said problems that might seem minor to the contractors - such as a broken warning light on a bus - are significant to inspectors.

"No one's going to think it's a minor problem if a child gets killed by a car because the bus warning light didn't work properly," Edwards said. "It will all come back on the guy who did the inspection. I can't let those things slide by."

Nearly all of the contractors who attended yesterday's meeting were black, while the three MVA representatives at the meeting were white. Contractors complained that they never see black MVA employees doing state-required bus inspections, which they claimed often identify minor fix-up issues as major defects.

"Give us a break, man," said Eli Jason Barber, whose company, Barber Transportation, has a fleet of 14 buses that have been cited for 26 major defects during the past three years. "We work very hard for Baltimore City for very little money and get no appreciation for it."

`Go back to mechanic school'

Barber brought a motor mount from one of his buses to the meeting and at one point waved it over his head as he marched toward the MVA officials seated at a table, arguing with them over why they failed his bus at a Jan. 15 inspection because of the mount. As is required by state law, an inspector seized the bus' license tags when the violation was found.

"I think you guys ought to go back to mechanic school," Barber said. "I can't figure out why these things are major violations some times and only a minor violation another."

State records show that "major violations" - those for which inspectors suspend the bus license tags - have included leaking fuel, bad brakes, bald tires, loose bumpers and broken warning lights. "Minor violations" - which the contractors have 30 days to fix - include items such as missing first-aid equipment on the bus, a faulty headlight or a ripped seat.

Borderline violations

Some violations, MVA officials say, are borderline between major and minor, and inspectors have leeway in classifying them. A loose steering component might be considered major or minor, depending on how much play there is in the steering mechanism.

Contractors argue that such ambiguity between major and minor violations has caused confusion. The contractors and Valencia D. Baker, director of pupil transportation for the Baltimore school system, told MVA officials they would like a better-defined MVA list of minor and major violations.

Baker also said she would like MVA officials to keep her informed of which companies have been failing the most inspections. Her office has adopted a stricter stance with city contractors to get them to take better care of their buses, and she implemented a system that fines contractors $100 for every major violation.

"If some of the contractors are failing more inspections, I would like MVA to work closely with us and bring it to our attention," Baker said.

Biff W. Allender, owner of the Allender Group, the city's second-highest-paid contractor at $1.6 million a year and which had 66 violations on its fleet of 28 buses in the past three years, told MVA officials he believes a double standard exists for Baltimore buses.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.