King County Metro's bathroom reform: Constipated or incompetent?

King County's new South Myrtle Street port-a-potty overflowed with human waste for more than two weeks.
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A porta potty in South Lake Union.

King County's new South Myrtle Street port-a-potty overflowed with human waste for more than two weeks.

On a drizzly weekend evening a few days before Christmas, a Metro driver stepped into the newly installed port-a-potty on South Myrtle Street. Muffled sounds of human repulsion rang out, before the operator emerged from the structure, trash strewn beside it.

“Did you hear me swearing?” she asked. The reason became apparent when she invited me to step inside the sky-blue structure. “Lift the lid,” she implored as she shone a flashlight inside. Trash and human waste stuffed the bowl to its rim, rendering the toilet inoperative.

“Isn’t that disgusting?” she asked.

This was the operator’s first opportunity for a bathroom break in more than three hours, hustling to meet scheduled stops along the route. Now she would have to wait at least 45 minutes to use a toilet on the north end of her line.

That Honey Bucket port-a-potty would remain overflowing with trash and human excrement until December 31 – when, after 16 days, the toilet was finally cleaned. It serves as a pit stop at the end of Routes No 36 and 50, where up to 145 trips finish daily. For drivers on those routes, that stop is one of their only chances to take a break to relieve themselves.

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The cleaning log for King County Metro's S. Myrtle Street port-a-potty. Credit: Metro bus driver

The cleaning log for King County Metro's S. Myrtle Street port-a-potty. Photo: Metro bus driver

Though the port-a-potty’s urinal was still clear and available for male drivers, the women were out of luck. “It was terrible, absolutely filthy,” said operator Cheryl James. “The toilet was unusable.”

That wasn’t what King County Metro had promised when General Manager Kevin Desmond announced in a Dec. 15 letter to its 2,700 drivers that it would take, “immediate actions” to correct problems at the Othello port-a-potty.

In November, the previous Myrtle Street port-a-potty had received special scorn from the state Department of Labor and Industries for being dark and filthy. The agency cited Metro for failing to provide a “compliant clean washing facility”, with at least tepid running water, soap and paper towels. Local rowdies occasionally launched the portable onto its side.

That citation was just one finding from a six-month-long open inspection by L&I, first reported by Crosscut on Sept 2, which determined that the transit agency didn’t offer its operators unrestricted access to bathroom facilities at all hours on each route and within a walkable distance during turnaround times. L&I also concluded that Metro operators had been disciplined for running late, due to using or searching for an available bathroom. (Metro denies this allegation.)

A 300-plus page report issued in late November termed Metro’s bathroom access problems “egregious” and fined the transit agency $3,500, an amount some drivers consider a slap on the wrist. L&I required Metro to solve both the bathroom access and the Myrtle Street portable issues within 30 days.

On December 22nd, Metro responded with a letter from Deputy General Manager Rob Gannon. In the letter – part of a 19-page packet delivered to L&I that requested additional time to correct the bathroom access violations – Metro announced all of the progress it had already made to improve the situation.

The agency had, Gannon reported, installed a new portable restroom with running water at 3900 South Myrtle Street. A slender chain would anchor the new facility to a fence behind it. The letter promised, “increased maintenance service to this location at least three times a week,” and “increased oversight of this restroom and reporting of any problems that arise.”

The packet made other claims too: On December 10, Metro had assigned a member of its operations management team to “immediately prioritize and respond to comfort station issues” until an interim comfort station program coordinator was selected. (Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer later identified that person as Metro operations manager Michael List.)

The agency had also, it claimed, inspected the more than 260 bathrooms in its network and updated supporting maps to identify gaps. And, listed in Gannon’s letter under the heading “Actions Metro has taken,” the agency reported “Improved mechanisms for employees to report problems with restrooms via an improved ‘Comfort Station Report’ form, a new email address (Station.Comfort@kingcounty.gov) and a new dedicated phone line.”

On December 15, Desmond wrote an email to Metro employees announcing that Metro had appointed a temporary comfort station coordinator, Rob Loer, to, “interact directly with operators to learn first-hand about issues and concerns.”

On December 30th, L&I, apparently satisfied that Metro had addressed the problem, extended Metro’s deadline for the next round of improvements until March 2.

But fast forward just a few days to the scene of the South Myrtle Street port-a-potty and the congested toilet wasn’t the only issue. At least once – on January 6 – the port-a-potty cleaner scribbled, “no water” on the maintenance log, but didn’t refill it.

“To me, that’s just asinine,” said driver Hal Poor, who said the tank was still empty two days later.

And the water tank leaked, forming a puddle on the sidewalk in front of the portable that posed a safety risk to drivers. On New Year’s Eve, temperatures dropped and that puddle had turned to black ice. “That’s a hazard to the public,” said a driver.

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The leak outside the S. Myrtle Street port-a-potty turned to black ice over New Year's Eve.

“We were all writing and calling in,” said James, the female driver who had termed the port-a-potty “unusable.” Several operators contacted during December and January said they submitted multiple Comfort Station Report forms regarding that port-a-potty. They also snapped photos and called their supervisors.

At right: The leak outside the S. Myrtle Street port-a-potty turned to black ice over New Year's Eve. Photo: Metro bus driver

But the complaints apparently fell on deaf ears. There was no response from Metro and the portable remained filthy until December 31, when it was finally serviced, after 16 days.

Asked who was monitoring the dedicated phone line from its inception in December, Switzer on January 27, wrote to Crosscut, “We announced the reinvigorated program in December and noted that we would be adding a phone in the future.”

Switzer acknowledged Metro received “a written report about this facility dated 12/21…however the coordinator was off during the holiday week.” When Loer saw the form on Dec. 29, Switzer wrote, “he immediately contacted the vendor to service the station.”

Switzer explained that Loer was not assigned full-time to this role. “Instead, he was balancing duties as a transit chief overseeing 130 operators while attempting to address incoming concerns from operators about comfort stations.”

Honey Bucket spokesman Tom Ramsay blamed the continuing lack of service on a “clerical error.” “We kind of lost track of this unit for a while,” he said, noting that Metro wouldn’t be charged for the missed cleanings.

Ramsay blamed the leaky water tank, which has since been repaired, on vandalism. “We want to make it right,” he said. “We are aware what Metro drivers are going through with the bathrooms. It’s a matter of human dignity and we are working hard to be a part of the solution.”

When contacted by Crosscut, L&I spokesman Tim Church said it was the first his agency had heard of any problems with the new port-a-potty. “No one has officially informed us of any of these issues. We’ve received no complaints.”

For its part, Metro plans to hire a permanent comfort station program coordinator by March. “By making it a permanent assignment rather than a temporary rotating detail assignment, I fully expect we will avoid the missteps that led to the current and unacceptable state,” Desmond wrote to Bachtel on December 12.

By the end of 2015, Metro anticipates adjusting bus schedules and route destinations to improve restroom accessibility. New bathrooms would be financed and built by 2017 – anywhere between a handful and more than 10. “Doing a cost analysis around changing bus routes or building permanent solutions takes time,” Switzer wrote.

ATU, Local 587, Vice-President Neal Safrin called Metro’s timetable for abatement “reasonable." "It’s such a massive undertaking," he said. "The problems are so many decades old. Nothing is a quick fix. Most of the routes terminate in residential areas … so they (buses) are not blocking traffic. But in most residential areas, there will not be a restroom.”

Routes ending on Queen Anne remain one of the most problematic for drivers – especially at night after businesses close. One former No. 4 operator recalled, “I’d get tall kitchen trash bags and defecate into a bag, tie it up and throw it out … more times than I can recall.” Another driver said unhooking her poles and switching them to another line with a convenient bathroom would exceed her break time, so she takes her own measures whenever she drives the No. 1 bus into Queen Anne. “I carry red Solo cups,” she said. “After dark, I use it behind the bus shelter.”

Safrin said new contract language tentatively approved by the union would guarantee drivers a break of at least five minutes after each trip, or at least 10 percent of the scheduled trip time, whichever is greater. (Based on that formula, a 60-minute trip’s minimum layover would be increased by one minute).

And in its December response to the L&I citation, Metro reasserted its policy that operators may pull over along their routes for a bathroom break, and not be disciplined. “The pressure that operators may feel from passengers not to stop and use the restroom is a social pressure,” the report read.

That may be, but one Metro base superintendent told L&I investigators that Metro’s policy, “doesn’t work on a practical level because it creates a hostile work environment and due to vandalism and theft issues.”

Poor recalled the time he stopped to grab a cup of coffee at a convenience store, with a few riders onboard. During his absence, someone entered the bus, stole half of his transfers, and poured a can of Coke onto his seat. “And here’s six people on the bus that watched this and never said a word,” he recalled. “And that’s the same thing that’s going to happen or could happen if we had passengers on the bus and we stop mid-route to use the facilities. “

Some drivers expressed fear that knowledgeable but unscrupulous riders could start up the bus and hijack it, a situation the Metro’s Switzer says is unlikely if operators properly secure their vehicles.

Metro officials, meanwhile, insist that they are getting their act together. On Jan. 23 the transit agency appointed Metro operator Michael Baruso to serve as Metro’s full-time interim comfort station program coordinator, at an advertised salary between $33 and $40 an hour.

That same day, the driver bathroom complaint hotline finally went live, more than a month after Metro’s Gannon claimed  it had. “We will make sure he (Baruso) is responsive to the reports we receive from operators,” Switzer stated on January 23.

As for the Myrtle Street port-a-potty, Switzer said Metro is negotiating with the Seattle Union Gospel Mission around the corner for use of its bathroom facilities around the clock.

The agency is considering ways to eventually replace all of its port-a potties, which Switzer said are meant to serve as temporary solutions. “[Metro] is moving forward deliberately to address longstanding issues," he said, "but we are still in the initial stages of launching this program.”

Not everyone is optimistic. “What remains to be seen is the implementation of it," said the Amalgamated Transit Union's Safrin. "An easy thing would be for Metro to start it and then fade away.”

Poor, a former shop steward, is similarly skeptical. “As soon as somebody finds something else to gripe about," he said, "Metro will worry about that and let this go."

In his December 15 letter to employees, Metro chief Desmond insisted that wouldn’t happen. “Metro’s operators are the backbone of our service and deserve the best working conditions we can provide,” he wrote. “I am fully committed to rebuilding the comfort station program and making sure our operators have the facilities they need along their routes.”

  

About the Authors & Contributors

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Laura Kaufman

Laura Kaufman, an award-winning journalist, is writing a book about First & Pike News.