WATA complaints come from customers, drivers alike

Contact Reporterwwright@vagazette.com

WATA buses drive more than a million miles year, and sometimes there are bumps in the road.

Between May 15, 2016 and May 15, 2017 the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority logged 14 safety complaints and nine service complaints from passengers and drivers.

Those complaints happened at varying points throughout the day, and they ranged from buses skipping stops to sudden braking to brash passengers. The records on complaints were obtained by the Virginia Gazette via a Freedom of Information Act request.

"If a customer calls in a complaint, or however one comes in, someone will ask if they want a call back, and who they want it from," said Maria Boone, the safety and training coordinator at the transit authority. "Sometimes people really want to talk with a supervisor."

Neighboring service

Hampton Roads Transit serves much of southeastern Virginia and is a considerably larger entity than its Williamsburg counterpart. It serves an area of 1.3 million people. WATA serves an area of around 153,000 people.

The transit system serves Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.

Tom Holden, media relations specialist at the Hampton Roads Transit system, said his employer has a small team tasked with taking customer complaints when they come in.

"Someone will answer the phone, then the complaint gets routed through our agency to the right place," he said.

When drivers or riders have issues with safety, the transit system leans on law enforcement professionals, Holden said.

"We have transit safety officers, and there are off-duty police officers as well," he said.

WATA does not have transit officers.

Reporting problems

WATA drivers, referred to as bus operators in transit documents, have the option to report any disturbances they encounter while on the job, including problems they have with passengers.

"If an operator puts something in, it's something that usually happened on the bus while they were driving," Boone said.

In January, a driver reported to her employer that a passenger threatened her and everyone on the disabled bus.

That passenger told the driver that he was late for work and would lose his job. The driver thought he was joking, but her mood changed after he became what she described as loud and unruly. The records do not say how the issue was resolved.

On April 5, a rider filed a report with the authority, accusing a WATA driver of saying she did not understand his "white language."

The rider said he did not want to use the public transit system again, and he threatened at the time to contact the city if he had further issues. Records show the authority called him later that day, but he did not respond.

Local police are sometimes called to respond to situations. In January, police removed two men who refused to move their bags out of a bus aisle and proceeded to berate a driver.

In handling particularly tense situations, whether they involve safety or service, the authority reviews what happened using a video recording that the authority keeps.

Buses that have fixed routes — as opposed to specialty routes like the William and Mary Green Line — are equipped with cameras that record activity on the bus. Boone said staff also try to recreate what happened in interviews with drivers.

"The customer complaint is their version of what happened," Boone said. "There are times we go back and see what happened, and it's completely different."

But complaints are varied:

In October, a passenger said she had whiplash after a driver pulled off before she was fully seated.

In June 2016, a customer accused a driver of driving into oncoming traffic in an attempt to pass a mail truck.

According to one rider who filed a complaint with the authority in March, a bus driver who assured them he'd wait while they went to get their pass, pulled away as the rider was returning.

On May 4, a customer complained that their partner ended up in a hospital when a driver abruptly slammed on the brakes.

Boone started in her current position in September 2016. She has stressed re-training when operators end up in a collision or are otherwise deemed deficient.

"We always try to retrain as soon as possible," she said. "A driver might have fallen short, but training can help shore that up."

Once any complaint is filed, the goal is to find a way to quell the customer's concerns, Boone said.

"Making sure to ask just how we can fix the issue is important, too," Boone said. "We're always trying to figure out what the remedy is."

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

How to submit a complaint

Anyone can submit their feedback or comments about any facet of the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority by calling 757-220-5493, emailing info@goWATA.org, or by completing a form on the website: http://bit.ly/2rO2CY2

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