I soon learned why. No one is watching the drivers – and they know it. The MTA’s 15 supervisors patrolling the San Fernando Valley in official cars are mainly on the lookout for buses with mechanical problems, not drivers who might be violating policy. And they are simply no match for the 900 bus drivers traveling the Valley streets. Violating MTA policy During a three-day odyssey of riding and following buses, I saw some drivers start late for no apparent reason. Others deliberately displayed the wrong route numbers on the headers so they didn’t have to stop and pick anyone up. By the time he awoke from his nap in the back of the bus and gabbed on his cell phone, the driver was already running six minutes late to start his route. Two more minutes ticked by, and nothing happened. The driver didn’t even post the correct route number in the header over the windshield that tells waiting passengers which bus is approaching. I wondered whether it was the wrong bus. I came to the Burbank bus stop in search of passengers to interview for a story about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposal to cut back or eliminate under-used bus routes. Public hearings are under way, with the MTA board set to make decisions this spring. But this driver didn’t seem overly concerned about his route being changed, even though the MTA has tagged it a money-loser. And some ignored MTA policy that drivers arrive at stops no more than 30 seconds early or five minutes later than scheduled, even though the transit system takes the area’s hectic bottleneck traffic into account and aims for buses to be on time 80 percent of the time. After being tipped off that the cell-phone-talking driver was indeed behind the wheel of the bus I came looking for – even though the header listed the wrong route number – I knocked on the door to talk. “What time is your first stop?” I asked. “Five minutes ago,” he said, changing the route number in the header only after I asked him about it. When he finally drove off, he was 10 minutes behind schedule. I wondered what was really going on with these bus routes and the people depending on them. The staff photographer and I jumped in our car to find out and followed the cell-phone-talking bus driver’s route. Cruising past him, I found Jazmin Ibarra, waiting on a bus bench with her 1-year-old daughter and 5-month-old son. Ibarra rides the bus to get milk from WIC, a federal nutrition program for low-income families. The trio had been waiting for nearly two hours. “It’s supposed to come every hour,” she said. “Sometimes it doesn’t, and I go home.” No wonder the route is losing money if service is so unpredictable, I told myself, wondering whether the routes are really under-used or whether the public is just underserved. The next day, I got up early and followed more buses on routes considered for cutbacks. The first bus – Route 168 – could be eliminated because its ridership doesn’t meet the MTA’s goal of 30 passengers each trip. Leaving the station two minutes late, the driver gradually gained time along the route because there weren’t many riders waiting at the stops. The bus moved right along and soon was two minutes ahead of schedule. So those who arrived at stops based on the schedule would have missed the bus. The driver reached the end of the line three minutes early, giving him 10 full minutes to lie down in back before starting the engine again, which he did right on time. Walking around the corner, I met Alicia Plaistowe, a 22-year-old veteran of the mass-transit system who says she really gets irked when buses run late. Right now, she’s looking for work as a receptionist, so being on time is imperative. “I call in late, it doesn’t look good for me,” she said. The next bus I followed that day fared well with time, ending its route four minutes late. However, the bus went the entire route without any number displayed in the header. I wondered what the MTA would say about my experience with the bus system, so I called Richard Hunt, general manager of the agency’s San Fernando Valley Service Sector, which will recommend in March which bus lines to change. Hunt said all three employees – the cell-phone-talking driver, the one who sped through his route and the third who failed to display the route number – had violated MTA rules. He also said the three don’t represent the majority of bus drivers. He asked for the drivers’ names – a request that violates Daily News policy. It’s up to the MTA to police its own staff, Editor Ron Kaye said. Bus drivers can earn up to $24.30 an hour, family health insurance and pensions. They don’t lose their jobs when bus lines are deemed low-performing and are cut. Cuts based on counts Goldy Norton, spokesman for the United Transportation Union, which represents the MTA’s 4,600 bus drivers and rail operators, called the rule violations disturbing and said the MTA has a responsibility to make sure bus drivers are doing their jobs. “That’s their obligation,” Norton said. “We feel the overwhelming majority of our people do their jobs and follow the rules, and it disturbs us when some people don’t think the rules apply to them.” The MTA is weighing more than three dozen route changes throughout its system, including eight in the Valley. Bus-line restructuring happens twice a year, and MTA officials say it will help catapult them from a $104 million deficit and operate more efficiently. Cuts are based on passenger counts for the past six months, using automated sensors installed in the doors of about 2,300 buses that measure when people step on and off. About 220 older buses, which are about to be retired, don’t have the high-tech equipment. But there’s no way to count the people who miss the bus because the drivers are running ahead of or behind schedule or who deliberately change their route numbers. “I don’t think there’s a satisfactory reason if they don’t (pick passengers up),” Hunt said. “It would make their day easier if they don’t have to deal with passengers. But that’s what we’re in the business for.” Hunt promised to get me the number of bus drivers who have been caught deliberately displaying incorrect routes for the past five years, but he never called back. Even so, even if one rogue bus driver blew off half the route, it wouldn’t have an impact on the MTA reports, Hunt said. Passenger counts are averaged in with all the others driving the route on different shifts. So is the MTA getting the whole picture? “We hope we do,” Hunt said. Already 0 for 3, I was not convinced. So I went out again, this time riding buses on the hit list instead of following in my car. Nothing major happened until my third bus for the day. A few hundred feet short of the station, where the bus was supposed to enter the turnaround, the driver pulled over to the curb. He said he’d be right back, then left to use the bathroom, leaving me inside – alone – with the engine on and the doors wide open. Suddenly news stories about the Valley’s surging gang problem flooded my head, and I was sure the bus was about to be hijacked with me inside. The driver returned about a minute later, dropped me off at the end of the line and peeled away. He had started this one six minutes late after first hanging around a senior-living center. Now he was 15 minutes late for his next route. On board the last bus home, I asked the driver whether he ever counts the passengers. “Sometimes,” he said. With his thumb, he tapped a button on a small flat-screen device positioned next to his seat. The equipment records fare and boarding information, so the MTA can track how many students, seniors and transfers are riding with certain passes. Officials said it helps determine whether the fares collected match passenger boarding information. “They want us to count,” the driver said and shrugged. “And I don’t really care.” [email protected] (818) 713-3746160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!