When Cemusa entered into its 20-year contract with New York City to install and maintain bus shelters and newsstands across the city, critics lamented the death of New York’s individuality. Noted that the bus shelters were the same in the Big Apple as they were elsewhere, Brooks of Sheffield called unspecial and unoriginal. Others, meanwhile, had more legitimate complaints as Queens Crap complained of snow removal neglect and Sheepshead Bites accused of Cemusa’s bus stations of peddling in misinformation. Now, the city government is piling on too.
In an audit released earlier this week, New York City Comptroller set his sights on Cemusa’s failure to adhere to its bargain. Bus shelters aren’t as clean or well maintained as the company promised they would be, John Liu’s office said. The full report is available here as a PDF. The short of it from the Comptroller’s Office:
Under the franchise agreement, Cemusa is required, at its own expense, to clean, inspect, and maintain the structures in good repair. With DOT’s approval, Cemusa has outsourced its inspection, cleaning, and maintenance responsibilities to subcontractors. DynaServ Industries, Inc. (DynaServ) is responsible for cleaning, inspecting, and posting advertisements, and Pipeline Construction, LLC (Pipeline) was responsible for repairing and replacing damaged parts and performing electrical repairs and annual electrical inspections. This audit addressed Cemusa’s upkeep of the bus stop shelters, the most common type and widely used street furniture across the City.
The audit concluded that Cemusa needs to improve its oversight efforts to ensure that its subcontractors maintain bus stop shelters in compliance with its franchise agreement with DOT. Cemusa has certain mechanisms in place to assess its subcontractors’ performance regarding the upkeep of the bus stop shelters. However, these mechanisms do not provide sufficient assurance that the subcontractors’ performance ensures Cemusa’s compliance with the provisions of its franchise agreement regarding the upkeep of the bus stop shelters.
For the audit test period, Cemusa’s subcontractor, DynaServ, did not service (inspect and clean) the bus stop shelters at the level required. DynaServ’s productivity expectations (the number of shelters that can be cleaned by each crew in one shift) are overly optimistic and DynaServ has not allocated sufficient resources to ensure that each shelter will be cleaned twice each week on non-consecutive days as required. The audit also showed that Cemusa’s other subcontractor, Pipeline, needed to improve its performance in regard to responding promptly and repairing reported defective conditions. Further, there was insufficient evidence that all electrical inspections were carried out as reported. Based on these and additional factors discussed herein, we lack reasonable assurance that the bus stop shelters are serviced in accordance with Cemusa’s franchise agreement with DOT.
At a certain level, Cemusa disputed the Comptroller’s results. The company noted that Liu’s audit was based on one observable point in time and that the subcontractor routinely upheld its end of the deal. “No trend can be assessed and no conclusion can be drawn,” the company said. Despite protests from the Comptroller’s Office, Cemusa said cleaning efforts are generally sufficient and up to contractual standards.
Still, they agreed with five points from the report. It avowed the need for better subcontractor oversight, promised to clean roof panels more frequently and will establish proactive oversight and monitoring of contractors. After all, with 14 years left in the contract and more ad revenue rolling in, the company has a compelling reason to keep these shelters clean.
In response to the audit, Transportation Nation wondered if the criticism speaks to the problem of privatization. “When a private company manages public space,” Alex Goldmark wrote, “they too, leave it dirty sometimes, just like the DOT did when they managed bus shelters.”
That’s a bit of an oversimplification. The current bus stops, while perhaps not unique or to the liking of those who yearn for old New York, are cleaner, bigger and brighter than the old shelters. They’ve been modernized and are generally well maintained by Cemusa. I’ve watched those in my neighborhood cleaned regularly, and based on my lack of faith in John Liu, I am inclined to believe the City Comptroller’s Office relied upon a less than rigorous audit methodology here.
Still, privatization of public spaces isn’t a panacea. Cemusa may be paying $1.5 billion for the rights to the bus shelters and newsstands, but it still has to confront the same realities of maintenance and upkeep that the city did when it was in charge. From a use perspective, I’m far more concerned with the observations Al Rosen made in May: If the information concerning bus routes isn’t correct, who cares how often the glass gets cleaned anyway?