Credit: Mr.TinDC via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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D.C. Circulator operators on Thursday evening overwhelmingly ratified a new three-year contract with company First Transit for higher wages and greater safety guarantees.

Sesil Rubain, a trustee of ATU Local 1764, said in an interview that Circulator operators will now be eligible for a maximum wage of roughly $31 an hour—up from about $23 an hour previously—bringing them closer to parity with Metro bus drivers. The union also successfully negotiated for language that prohibits First Transit from compelling operators to drive buses that aren’t in safe condition, Rubain said. The treasurer added that the contract triples the company’s contribution to operators’ 401(k) plans.

“The company cannot force them to drive buses that don’t meet safety standards,” Rubain explains. “These [terms] are really an unbelievable benefit to the drivers.”

The new contract follows the April release of an audit conducted last year which found that more than 90 percent of 49 Circulator buses inspected had “type A defects” that “should render a bus out of service until repaired.” A subsequent audit performed in January of this year showed a “77 percent decrease in the total number of reported defects,” First Transit said in a statement last month. The company noted at the time that a dozen and a half new buses had been added to the fleet since the original August audit, which reported “an exceptionally high number of defects, a total of 924 or an average of twenty-two (22) defects per bus.”

City Desk has reached out to First Transit for comment and will update this post when we hear back. Speaking on background, a source with knowledge of the new contract said operators now have more power to refuse to drive Circulator buses they find are mechanically unsound; the company is required to fix defects—such as brakes that take too long to decelerate or dysfunctional mirrors—before putting buses back into service.

Under the contract’s salary progression, the person noted, it would take a new operator around eight years to achieve the augmented max wage. Critics of the previous system had pointed out that Metrobus drivers can make a top hourly wage of $34 an hour currently.

The D.C. Council’s soon-to-be-finalized fiscal year 2017 budget includes $1 million to support pay parity for Circulator operators. “We need to improve the employee retention,” District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo testified at a Council oversight hearing earlier this year. “We want to have good, loyal operators who are happy and safe doing what they are doing because that just means our customers are going to get a higher quality of service.”

It costs $1 to ride the Circulator. DDOT and Metro have oversight roles for the buses.

Update, 4:10 p.m.: A spokesperson for First Transit confirmed that the new contract was brokered and retroactively applies to April 1st. “We completely respect our employees’ rights for the collective-bargaining process,” he said.

This post has been updated with additional information.