Opinion: Access Riders Score Victory Against Veolia & for Improved Service

by Susan Koppelman

A 7-year campaign led by disabled riders and anti-imperial, anti-privatization, disability justice and labor solidarity activists has pushed King County to cut ties with a corporation that was subcontracting Metro’s Access transit service. Veolia operated the federally mandated paratransit service.

In the process of getting Veolia out, Stop Veolia Seattle organizers stood side-by-side with riders and drivers, winning improved standards for riders and increased protections for drivers.

At the beginning of this campaign, Veolia drivers did not have a union. In November 2015, a week after the historic victory of the Boston school bus drivers against Veolia, Teamsters 117 were able to leverage the Stop Veolia Seattle campaign to win a union contract for Veolia/Transdev drivers. MV, the new contractor for Access, is now honoring this same union contract.

This is the power of multi-issue organizing and building truly intersectional movements.

Riders, drivers and corporate accountability activists have been organizing for this victory since around the time that the contract was awarded to Veolia in 2008. ATU Local 587 protested the cancellation of their union-represented contract during the height of the financial crisis. Metro promised King County $1 million worth of savings, but within 3 years of signing the new contract, taxpayers were paying $7.7 million more annually to Veolia while total rides and total service hours were down — and none of this taxpayer investment went to the workers.

Riders were reporting worsened service since Veolia took over. Now deceased Transit Riders Union member and Access rider Lonnie Nelson noticed a difference in service and quality between drivers who were part of the union and those who didn’t have a union. In 2012 Stop Veolia activists began meeting in solidarity with riders and drivers and in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and all of those impacted globally by Veolia’s practice of undermining public access to safe drinking water, public transportation and their hostile labor practices.

After a long pressure campaign, a 2017 King County Auditors report revealed what riders had long suspected: the contractors, including Veolia/Transdev, got paid more the longer that riders were on the Access van, with no standards for on-board time defined, monitored or enforced. So there was a clear financial incentive to the subcontracting companies for riders being driven circuitously past their homes and across the county before eventually being dropped off, as many riders had been reporting. The Audit also revealed problems with equity, poor contract management dating back to 2009 and mismanagement of IT projects. The Audit further supported advocates’ concerns with a lack of payment options for riders; and that, First Transit — the contractor managing the Call Center, scheduling and routing — was responsible for handling complaints made against itself.


Important Changes in Standards Under the New Contract

Riders are hopeful that, together with other changes, Veolia’s ouster will lead to improved service. But this remains to be seen.

The new contract with MV Transportation began October 26, 2019, and upholds existing protections for drivers while increasing standards that impact riders. It marks the first time that King County has set standards for on-board time – how long riders spend on Access vans getting to their destination – and will be monitoring on-board time to ensure that there is not a “pattern or practice” of excessively long trips as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It also strengthens the enforcement of standards for drop-off time.

Customer service will be brought in-house. There is a retention plan to protect the roughly 600 workers who have been operating the Access service. Metro is taking steps to streamline access to the Language Line for callers with Limited English Proficiency, and is translating more materials into more languages.

But there is cause to be concerned that the new contract will fail to adequately protect the 30-minute ADA pick-up and drop-off windows due to a confluence of the following factors: First, Metro weakened the definitions of “excessively late,” “excessively early,” and “missed trips” (compared to the definitions of its RFP Working Group). This allows more late, early and what would otherwise be considered missed trips to go unpenalized. Second, the new contract allows roughly 7,500 preventable late, early and missed trips every month without any penalty, as well as an additional roughly 7,500 preventable untimely or missed drop-offs. Third, penalties — when they are applied — are still relatively low. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how the contractor will program scheduling software to eliminate the possibility of scheduling trips that take more than 15 minutes longer than trips on fixed route service.

Disability Rights Washington, Transit Riders Union and WA ADAPT are on record with the county condemning the definitions for excessively late, excessively early and missed trips that have the effect of minimizing consequences to the contractor and thus failing to adequately protect the pickup and drop-off windows.

Web-scheduling will not be available at the beginning of the new contract, even though this has been promised to riders for over a decade and is a requirement in the new contract. In a blog post from June 2017, Metro said that riders would be able to schedule trips online by the end of that year. In 2018, Metro promised that online scheduling would be available Day 1 of the new contract. The start of the contract was delayed by 15 months, but Metro is now saying that web scheduling will not be available until 2020.

For all of these reasons and more, it is important that we continue to build mechanisms independent of Metro to monitor performance and keep pressure on Metro to follow through with much needed changes that have been long documented, including ongoing work together to achieve equity for riders who are nonverbal or speak English as a second language.


Reasons to Target Veolia

Veolia was founded by imperial decree of Napoleon III. Some of its first contracts were providing water and transportation to the French colonies. Today Veolia is the largest privatizer of water and transportation, marking a clear trajectory from slavery and colonization to the privatization of public services.

Veolia has long been a target of water justice activists. Veolia is implicated in the lead poisoning crisis in Flint and mass water shutoffs in Detroit. In the poorest province of Argentina, a Veolia subsidiary tripled the cost of water while not fulfilling its contractual obligations to expand the water network, in fact, turning the water brown. A World Bank court sided with the water privatizing Goliath arguing that they have a right to make a profit, even though they didn’t fulfill their contractual obligations.

Veolia has also been a major target of the campaign to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel until Israel complies with international law and ends its human rights violations of Palestinians. Veolia built the Jerusalem Light Rail connecting illegal Israeli colonies in internationally recognized Palestinian territory to Jerusalem. Veolia managed a landfill on Palestinian land in the Jordan Valley that dumped waste from the settlements and from Israel in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention; and provided wastewater services to illegal colonies.

In August 2015, in response to BDS activists costing Veolia reportedly over $24 billion in lost contracts, Veolia announced it was selling all of its enterprises in Israel/Palestine, marking a major victory for BDS. That same month Stop Veolia Seattle was set to release our epic 101-page Zine, layout was final, when we learned of the amazing BDS victory. We updated the Zine and went to print a week later.


History of Access Contracting Reveals Problems with Subcontracting Public Services

The Stop Veolia Seattle Zine connecting struggles against Veolia around the world includes a feature-length piece on Veolia/Transdev’s privatization of buses in Chile, their illegal anti-labor practices and poor service that led to multiple spontaneous protests in the years before the Zine was published. Today millions of people in Chile are in the streets refusing neoliberalism. The example of Chile shows us what privatization does to our public services, how it feeds inequality and why it is important that we reclaim our public infrastructure.

Looking at the previous Access contract which dictated service from August 1, 2008 through Oct 25, 2019, it was possible for Metro to bid out and sign a contract that did not hold contractors to the ADA, failing to require contractors to monitor trip length and allowing the contractor to drop riders off excessively early. Similarly, the original Request for Proposals, or RFP, for the new Access contract released in April 2017 — two months before the Audit was released — did not hold contractors to the ADA, as riders, family members and other disabled community members were able to point out. Access riders inside and outside of the Transit Riders Union and a broad coalition were able to get the King County Council to press pause on an RFP that Metro had already bid out. At the end of a lengthy community engagement process to redo standards in the RFP, Metro decided to have contractors bid on three different levels of service. It would be up to the King County Council, Metro said, what level of service they decided to fund.

The Transit Riders Union, WA ADAPT & Disability Rights Washington released a report together making a strong case for fully funding the highest level of Access service to support the independence and community integration of Access riders. In response to this report, Metro actually testified before Council urging Council not to fund any of the higher levels of service. Metro’s Paratransit Manager at the time explained how private companies bidding for service factor penalties into their bid. So that King County taxpayers would end up paying these penalties and would ultimately pay more for the same lower level of service. Bingo. This is why we should not be contracting our public services to for-profit corporations.

As of last month, we now have a new private company operating Access. The standards in the new contract are way better than the standards in the first RFP that Metro released. And they are way below the standards that Access riders in Metro’s RFP Working Group insisted upon. We need to keep up the work together to hold Metro accountable and to bring Access in-house to be operated by Metro directly.

What’s Next?

This campaign raises similar questions as to those that have arisen following the defeat of Bechtel in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and fights against the privatization of water in Latin America, raised by water justice activist Marcela Olivera in her submission to the Stop Veolia Seattle Zine: How do we do oversight? What do public-public partnerships or public-community partnerships actually look like?

We invite you to join us in figuring out how we uphold equity, accessibility and transparency of local government in King County.

In solidarity with Boston, Detroit, Flint, Argentina, Chile, Palestine and all who have been targeted by Veolia around the world, good riddance Transdev! Onwards to achieving safe, reliable and equitable paratransit service in King County and throughout the United States!

Susan Koppelman is a local organizer with Stop Veolia Seattle, Seattle Transit Riders Union and WA ADAPT, among other projects.