By Francisco Alvarado, www.floridabulldog.org
A private transportation company with a lucrative Miami-Dade contract to operate more than two dozen public transit routes put unsafe buses on the street, according to a recent memo by a county watchdog.
Miami-Dade Inspector General Felix Jimenez concluded his three-year-old review of Limousines of South Florida’s previous no-bid, sweetheart deal without making any recommendations to the county commission. Three months earlier, the commission OK’d a new $64.1 million contract to handle bus service for 28 outsourced routes for the next five years.
Under its previous agreement that began in 2017, Limousines of South Florida earned approximately $32.5 million.
Limousines of South Florida, or LSF, is owned by Rene and Raymond Gonzalez, who are also the principals of Transportation America, a firm that also provides specialized bus rides for disabled county residents through a separate Miami-Dade contract worth $260 million.
Through their two Hialeah-based companies and other affiliates, the Gonzalez brothers are prolific donors to the election and reelection campaigns of politicians across Miami-Dade. Since 2017, they’ve funneled more than $300,000 to various former and current county commissioners, as well as Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, campaign finance records show.
In his Jan. 9 close-out memo, Jimenez said inspector general auditors launched a review of LSF’s public transit contract in December 2019 after his office received a credible complaint from an anonymous tipster that the company was operating unsafe buses.
Specifically, LSF drivers routinely operated overcrowded buses on two routes in southwest Miami-Dade even though the vehicles did not have safety equipment for standing passengers, Jimenez’s memo states. LSF was also slow to report serious incidents and accidents to Miami-Dade’s transportation department, and its drivers “consistently complain of being forced to work extremely long shifts” in violation of federal employment regulations, the memo says.
Miguel de Grandy, a government affairs lawyer and former state legislator representing LSF, said the inspector general’s inquiry ultimately vindicated his client. “There was a complaint and it was investigated,” DeGrandy said.
MEMO AFFIRMS RIDER COMPLAINTS
For Danielle Rivera, a local transit activist who is disabled, uses a walker and relies on Miami’s free trolley, the inspector general’s memo affirms complaints she and other LSF critics have made about the company’s services in recent years to county officials, as well as transportation bureaucrats in the city of Miami, where LSF has a contract to operate and maintain city-owned buses that are designed to look like trolleys.
Miami-Dade piggy-backed LSF’s Miami contract in 2017 when the county initially outsourced 14 bus routes to the company as a no-bid pilot program, county records show. For the next five years, county commissioners routinely awarded LSF one-year extensions and expanded its services to the current 28 bus routes. Each time, the Miami-Dade Transportation Department and Public Works recommended privatizing those routes to LSF because the county achieved an annual savings of approximately $1.2 million.
LSF’s bus service hasn’t improved, and Rivera says she constantly has difficulty communicating with LSF drivers to let her use the wheelchair ramps on the trolleys. Sometimes, the ramps malfunction or don’t work at all, she added. Rivera regularly documents her experiences on the Miami Trolley with her cellphone camera, uploading the video footage to her Twitter and You Tube accounts.
“They are not following proper procedures and maintenance to cut costs,” Rivera said of LSF. “They pay drivers as low as they can and don’t give them any training. And when something bad happens, they blame the drivers.”
In his memo, Miami-Dade Inspector General Jimenez said his office decided to further investigate the anonymous allegations against LSF based on public transit users who voiced their complaints about the company during county commission meetings.
AUDITOR RODE LSF BUS
According to Jimenez’s memo, his office began preliminary fieldwork into the anonymous complaint on Dec. 19, 2019. An inspector general auditor spent a full day riding an LSF bus on a route from Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus to Florida City. The bus had adequate seating, grab handles, wheelchair accessibility, onboard cameras and exterior bicycle racks, Jimenez’s memo states.
However, the auditor conducted the field trip “during the high school and college winter break; as such, there were likely fewer riders on this route,” the memo states. Five days later, an auditing team met with the anonymous tipster, who corroborated the allegations highlighted in the complaint and “provided supplemental information,” Jimenez wrote.
The tipster told auditors LSF buses sometimes were “so full that people have to stand up — without safety handles — while others resort to sitting on the floor between the aisles and in the rear area.” In some cases, drivers could not go past 20 miles per hour because the buses were “so overloaded,” which resulted in late arrivals and increased wait times, the memo states.
LSF also had issues with buses breaking down, not having proper requirements for wheelchair lifts and being kept clean, the memo states. The tipster told auditors about one instance on a bus when “feces remained on the seat for three days until the driver purchased supplies and Steven cleaned the soil area herself.”
LSF lobbyist DeGrandy said the tipster’s allegations were unfounded, noting that the auditor who rode one of the company’s buses didn’t report any problems. “They put someone on the bus and didn’t find anything,” he said. “On the contrary, they found the vehicle was clean and everything was in order.”
INSPECTOR GENERAL SUSPENDED INQUIRY AMID PANDEMIC
After conducting a detailed analysis of bus ridership data from 2018 through 2020, and obtaining documents related to the outsourcing of routes, inspector general “senior management” determined in July 2020 that further investigation into LSF’s contract “may not be productive.” At the time, the transportation department was working on a new bus operations plan to improve county-wide services, Jimenez’s memo states.
It was also the height of the pandemic, and Miami-Dade had just implemented social distancing requirements on public buses and the routes operated by LSF that caused a strain on the transportation department, per the memo: “In light of the Coronavirus’ effect on [transit] operations, continued discussions on this matter were paused in an effort to allow [the transportation department] focus its efforts on managing its services to the public.”
Last year, it appeared LSF would lose its grip on the privatized bus routes after it lost a competitive bid for a new five-year contract to a competitor, Orlando-based Americas Transportation. But on May 26, 2022, Americas Transportation owner Steven Masdeu withdrew his company’s winning bid, according to a letter he sent to Miami-Dade procurement staff.
Masdeu cited high inflation, such as fuel costs increasing by nearly 35 percent, for bowing out. “Americas Transportation accounted for reasonable rates of inflation, based on historic averages, in its bid,” Masdeu wrote. “However, in light of the drastic and unforeseeable increases in prices in recent months, Americas Transportation must withdraw its current bid.”
In November, based on a recommendation from the transportation department and Mayor Levine Cava, county commissioners voted 12-0 without discussion to approve the new $64.1 million deal with LSF. Americas Transportation and LSF were the only two companies to vie for the new contract.
According to Jimenez’s memo, he and his office reviewed the new contract, and determined it included terms and conditions that dealt with the overcrowding, driver hours, accident reporting and bus cleanliness and maintenance problems identified by the anonymous tipster.
If LSF fails to comply, the county can hit the company with liquidated damages for any violations, the memo states. “The concerns have been adequately addressed in the replacement contract,” Jimenez wrote. “The [inspector general’s] audit unit and contract oversight unit may periodically request reports from [the transportation department] regarding performance metrics and the assessment of liquidated damages.”
Rivera, the transit activist, doesn’t share Jimenez’s optimism. “I’m still having trouble using the Miami trolley because LSF drivers still fight with me about the wheelchair ramps,” she said. “So no, I don’t think their bus service is going to get better.”