THE COMMUTE: Several days ago, New York City Comptroller John Liu released an audit on the cleaning and maintenance of bus stop shelters by CEMUSA under its franchise agreement with the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT). Naturally, we were interested in the findings of this audit after heavily criticizing DOT and CEMUSA last May. However, many of our questions regarding CEMUSA’s responsibilities were not answered.
Liu basically looked at only three aspects of the contract:
- Whether CEMUSA cleans the structures as per their contract;
- Whether CEMUSA maintains these shelters in a state of good repair — replacing damaged parts as required within required time limits and
- CEMUSA’ s response to snowstorms.
The comptroller made it publicly known that CEMUSA subcontracts all these functions with DOT’s permission. He concluded that, although the bus stop shelters were reasonably clean and well maintained, the exterior roof panels were not cleaned regularly and that, during the audit period, the subcontractor did not inspect and clean the shelters at the level required. He further concluded that insufficient resources are allocated to meet the contract requirements for cleaning the shelters, and that 93 percent of defects found are repaired within the required due dates while seven percent are repaired after the due dates.
Bus stop shelters were not cleared of snow after the December 2010 snowstorm and subsequent snowstorms of January 2011. DOT charged CEMUSA more than $90,000 in liquidated damages for deficient performance. CEMUSA stated they were taking steps with their subcontractors to ensure better performance in the future.
Among the comptroller’s recommendations were that CEMUSA improve its oversight efforts with its subcontractors and that CEMUSA do its own inspections of the shelters instead of solely relying on subcontractor reports that 98 percent of the shelter are defect-free and require no maintenance. CEMUSA disputes many of the conclusions of the audit, but Liu is sticking to his guns, discounting much of CEMUSA’s response. DOT offered no comment other than a cover letter forwarding CEMUSA’s comments to Liu. You can read the entire audit here [PDF].
My problem with this audit is that Liu is so focused on the details of the contract, such as how often the shelters are washed and the cleanliness of the shelters — especially the roofs — that he fails to see what is truly important. There have been approximately 60 lawsuits, as well as ongoing allegations, that at least some if not all of the shelters have been improperly constructed. How safe are the shelters? Do they pose a safety risk? How much has thus far been paid out in lawsuits? Do the shelters, in fact, meet the contract specifications? Answers to those questions are omitted from the audit.
The next most important factor is: Are broken and vandalized shelters promptly repaired? According to Liu, the answer to that question is an overwhelming “yes.”
In my earlier report on CEMUSA, I criticized them for not maintaining the public information aspect of the bus shelters. Merely providing general tips on how to pay your fare was not DOT’s intention by requiring CEMUSA to provide specific transit information on the inside panel displaying the shelter location. They were supposed to provide at least the route numbers and maps, as well as schedules where there was enough room.
From the 2006 press release:
“The new street furniture will generate revenue, enliven City streets, and enhance public transportation,” said DOT Commissioner [Iris] Weinshall. “The bus shelters offer improved lighting and route information (emphasis added), both of which will benefit the 2.5 million people who use the City’s bus system everyday.”
CEMUSA has horribly failed in that regard and has chosen to remove route maps and numbers rather than update them. Many shelters just have a white light on the interior side of the bus stop location and do not even provide the transit tips. Bus schedules were removed a long time ago because CEMUSA did not want to bother with quarterly updates. The comptroller totally overlooked this entire aspect of the contract.
He also does not address the replacement of the shelters that were demolished as a result of the 2010 service cutbacks and if the contract requires them to be relocated elsewhere, after he specifically promised me he would look into that. Nor does he say anything about the three or more sizes of bus shelters CEMUSA is using and if they are making proper decisions as to where to locate double-sized shelters or short shelters. The two examples I gave last May regarding Kings Plaza and Kingsborough Community College leads me to believe that the answer to that one is “no.”
Does anyone really care if the roofs are dirty and doesn’t a strong rainstorm take care of that problem anyway? As far as washing of the shelters — is it really that important? Isn’t the route information that is supposed to be provided more important? Yes, the glass needs to be clean so that the ads and information are easily readable, but how often is cleaning really necessary? Should they be washed anyway if they are not dirty? After all, how often are the subway benches or elevated canopies washed?
Liu is more concerned with the cleaning aspect of the contract and resources devoted to it than the repair of broken shelters, because he cannot accuse CEMUSA of not doing a good job in that respect.
CEMUSA is a business like any other and they will cut corners when they can get away with it. Contractors know that many contracts require more cleaning than necessary and get away with less than what the contract requires because no one checks.
When I was in the Contracts Department at the MTA, a senior manager noticed that the carpets were getting dirty. An outside contractor was hired to do the maintenance. (Why this function could not be performed in-house is another question.) The carpets were vacuumed about every week or two and shampooing occurred only about once every six months. Since we were the Contracts Department, it was easy for us to check the contract provisions. Lo and behold, vacuuming was supposed to be done daily and shampooing biweekly! Even after complaints were made to the contractor, they still did not abide with the contract and had no intention to. They just slightly increased their cleaning and shampooing schedule because they never could have received the contract award as the low bidder and turned a profit if they complied with the letter of the contract, and the MTA did not want the expense of finding them in default and rebidding.
CEMUSA will continue to do the minimum cleaning necessary. So what if they are not abiding by the letter of the contract, as long as the shelters are reasonably clean? Isn’t that’s what really is important?
Liu needs to follow-up — especially after the next major snowstorm — to determine if the changes CEMUSA made will improve their subcontractor’s performance. If not, they need to be heavily fined. The liquidated damages should not be cheaper than what it would cost them to do the job properly in the first place. He also needs to investigate why CEMUSA is not providing the route-specific public information that is required and why DOT is not insisting that they do.
Most important are the allegations that were made by the New York Post — that the public is at risk by glass panels spontaneously shattering. Also, were the materials used or was the method of construction not in compliance with the contract? These factors are far more important than if the roofs are dirty.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
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