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Petaluma Transit contract up for renewal after settlement in driver accident

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Erin Ferguson was elated on a early December morning in 2016 as she walked to get her nails painted in preparation for a job she said she was set to start in four days. She had nearly made it through an east side crosswalk when she was struck by a Petaluma Transit bus, ending up at the hospital that day instead of the salon.

“It has totally impacted my life … I just remember hearing the bus and I think I turned, I’m not real sure. I don’t remember anything else and then I was underneath the bus and someone was talking to me,” said Ferguson, a 47-year-old Petaluma resident. “I didn’t know what happened, I couldn’t move to crawl from under the bus,”

An investigation by Petaluma Police revealed that the 77-year-old driver was at fault, and should have yielded to Ferguson as she walked in the crosswalk of North McDowell Boulevard and East Madison Street in the Dec. 1, 2016 incident, Lt. Tim Lyons said. In 2017, Ferguson sued Petaluma, the bus driver and MV Transportation, the company the city contracts with to operate its bus and paratransit system, ultimately resulting in a $775,000 settlement last month, according to court documents. The city was dismissed in the case, and the Texas-based transportation company handled the payout.

Petaluma has contracted with MV Transportation to operate the city’s bus line since 2000, and its paratransit line since 2011, Transit Manager Jared Hall said. The current contract will expire June 30, and the city’s transit advisory committee April 5 recommended that the city council approve a $13.3 million contract for the company to operate for another seven years in the city. Funding would come largely from county, state and federal sources.

The base contract is for $7.3 million for the first four years, with the option for the city to choose to extend the contract annually for three more years at an estimated cost of about $2 million a year, according to a staff report.

The 2016 incident forever changed Ferguson’s life, she said. Her left arm was broken in five different places and she now has a plate that stretches from her shoulder almost to her elbow that’s held in place by 11 screws, she said. Ferguson said she’s been out of work because a pinched nerve in her arm causes pain when she’s sitting at a desk, and she’s been attending extensive physical therapy until about two months ago. The former bookkeeper said she plans to go back to Santa Rosa Junior College to refresh her accounting skills before attempting to reenter the workforce.

“There’s pain, but I’m pretty much used to it now,” said Ferguson, who had relied on Petaluma buses for transportation prior to the event. “It’s there, but I try to look on the bright side of things – it’s going to be there, so there’s not much I can do about it. It’s limited my abilities quite a bit – I can’t play sports with my son. It used to be baseball and now I can’t even do badminton.”

MV Transportation’s Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Womack declined to comment on the lawsuit or to provide details about the 77-year-old employee, other than to say she is no longer with the company.

Concord-based attorney Steven Disharoon who represented MV Transportation in the proceedings did not return a call for comment.

City Attorney Eric Danly said the city’s contract with MV Transportation includes an indemnity clause, where MV Transportation is responsible for defending the city. The city was dismissed from the lawsuit and the settlement precluded Ferguson from suing again over the incident.

On the legal side of things, Danly said the city’s dealings with the company in terms of its contract obligations have been “smooth.”

A 2011 lawsuit was also filed against Petaluma Paratransit and MV Transportation and was subsequently settled and dismissed, according to minutes from Sonoma County Superior Court. Case files have since been destroyed as per court policy with dismissed cases, and the city did not have records from the case. Danly said he was not aware of any other lawsuits.

Hall, the city’s transit manager, pointed to a 2012 survey of more than 200 transit passengers that showed a “vast majority” of riders offered positive ratings about the overall performance. Fifty-one percent marked it as “excellent” and 37 percent rated it as “good,” according to the results from Irvine-based Redhill Group. In a 2016 survey of 305 riders completed by Petaluma Transit, 47.91 percent of respondents said they felt safe while riding the buses, and 20.53 percent strongly agreed that they felt safe.

Last year fiscal year, 363,017 one-way trips were logged on Petaluma buses, with 343,616 of those being fixed route trips, Hall said. There are 14 fixed-route buses and nine paratransit buses in the fleet, all owned by the city, he said. MV employs about 20 drivers in Petaluma, Womack siad.

Safety and accident data for Petaluma buses was not available from Hall or Womack. The general manager of the Petaluma branch did not return multiple calls for comment.

“We’re very confident in MV – they’ve done a good job as the current provider and we’re looking forward to working with them,” Hall said.

The transit advisory committee recommended the company after a request for proposals process that began in December, with responses due this January. Of the three companies that submitted proposals ranging from $13.3 million to $15.3 million, MV Transportation rose to the top based on criteria including the ability to perform the contact, pricing, and experience with use of innovative technology, Hall said.

Womack said buses are equipped with cameras to record incidents, and Petaluma’s fleet will soon get new technology that emits a loud beeping sound if buses get too close to objects. After the 2016 crash, local and national safety trainings were launched, he said.

“We’ve got a very good reputation in the industry because of solid protocols for safety,” Womack said. “We have always had the latest technology that we employ on our vehicles to assist the riders.”

Canoga Park attorney Jeffrey Knoll, one of the attorneys who represented Furgerson, said his client is “lucky to be alive.”

“We had video of the actual incident from the bus and she was clearly stopped waiting for the light to change to green for her to proceed across the crosswalk, how that was missed by the bus operator … there’s no excuse,” he said.

City Councilwoman Kathy Miller said the accident would not preclude her from approving the contact with MV Transportation when the city council considers it April 16.

“Anytime there’s an accident, it’s a terrible thing, but I don’t know all the circumstances surrounding what happened,” she said. “I think anytime you’re driving in traffic there’s certainly potential for an accident to happen, If it were a pattern of accident after accident, I’d certainly have questions about it and how they’re training drivers, but I don’t have that concern.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)