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CTA revs up its bus cleaning

Quality of appearance improving as agency looks to schedule deep cleaning more often

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

June 17, 2013

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Hey, Chicagoans, you really know how to trash the CTA.

It's after 10 p.m., and more than 250 buses are parked at the CTA's Kedzie Avenue garage, awaiting some TLC following a long day of OMG at the hands of simply too many slovenly riders who were inconsiderate of the passengers who would board after them.

The first order of business before buses are refueled and run through the wash rack each night is to sweep out mounds of debris: an amalgam that includes food scraps, plastic bottles, newspapers, an occasional hypodermic syringe, splotch of blood or human waste (liquid and sometimes solid, naturally).

Surfaces including windows, grab railings and seats get a nightly wipe-down, and graffiti is removed, while floors are washed on an as-needed basis until their scheduled deep-cleaning, officials said.

The dirty little job of restoring the transit agency's 1,868 buses to respectable condition before the morning rush falls on crews called bus servicers who are assigned to seven CTA bus garages across the city.

"Oh, man, the buses go out good, and they come back terrible, just terrible, terrible," said Kamilah Kitchen, 32, who has worked as a bus servicer for eight months after learning about the opening at a CTA job fair.

This year's total annual budget for bus servicing is $20 million, officials said. Getting rid of the two G's — graffiti and gum — chews up a sizable amount of the budget, officials said.

The bus servicing job recently became more challenging because the CTA set the bar higher for daily cleaning and general deep cleaning. Under the new criteria, buses are cleaned more thoroughly and more often.

The CTA keeps a monthly score card on bus cleanliness. Initially, scores plummeted to a 41 percent average performance — a failing grade — after the more stringent criteria were implemented last summer, CTA records show. Scores have since more than doubled.

"The first thing I wanted to do when I moved from rail to bus last summer was to attack the clean," said George Cavelle, CTA director of bus maintenance and the agency's former head of the rail car appearance department.

"It's very personal for me. My wife rides the system," Cavelle said. "I say to my guys, 'What kind of environment do you want your family to ride the trains and buses?'"

Your Getting Around reporter spent some time Thursday night with bus servicers who do daily cleaning and those who do deep cleaning, which was monthly and now is being done on each bus every 23 days, officials said. The goal is to reduce the time between general cleanings to 14 days, officials said.

On CTA trains, the target for deep-cleaning rail cars is every 19 days, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.

Some quick observations about the operations at Kedzie: First, considering the competing smells of diesel fumes and cleaning agents, plus what seems like an endless line of buses waiting to be cleaned, it's not a job I could get my head around night after night. Second, the buses do leave the bus barn clean.

The 205 full-time bus servicers I observed worked extremely hard, employing determination, elbow grease and pride, to earn the $12.88 to $29.46 an hour wage, which is based on experience. Sixty-two part-time bus service apprentices, who are hired through the city's ex-offender program, are paid $9.50 an hour.

"Sometimes it's easy; sometimes it's rough. You have to be strong mentally to concentrate on what you are doing," bus servicer Andres Bulley said, moving quickly from washing a bus ceiling to wielding a putty knife to remove wads of dried gum from crevices under seats.

Bulley, who deep-cleans two buses per shift, said he has gained a new perspective that he carries into everyday life.

"I don't even litter no more," he said.

Asked what items discarded on buses have surprised her the most, Kitchen was quick to respond with a list.

"Underclothes, bras, panties. Needles. Bloody pants. Feces. Throw-up. Everything. Just awful," the 32-year-old Chicagoan said. "I've seen some things in eight months. But it's OK. The managers and co-workers here are pretty cool."

When a potential biohazard is identified, bus servicers are required to tell a manager so that special equipment can be used, officials said.

Each bus servicer must clean about 26 buses per night for the daily maintenance, which includes sweeping bus floors, wiping down seats and handrails, and performing other duties, Cavelle said. The average time per bus is 18 minutes for a standard 40-foot bus and 20 minutes for a 60-foot bus with an articulated midsection.

Meanwhile, four hours are allotted to a single servicer to complete the in-depth floor-to-ceiling general cleaning of a 40-foot bus and six hours for a 60-foot bus, officials said.

Before the new rules, 2 1/2 hours was spent on each bus, Cavelle said. "It wasn't anything in depth," he said.

CTA supervisors fill out an 11-point score card for each bus. Regarding the interior, categories include graffiti and chewing gum as well as the bus operator's area, passenger seats, windows and panels.

A bus servicer may scrape off more than 100 pieces of gum stuck under seats and hidden elsewhere, but if an inspection turns up three or more "traces of gum," the servicer receives a zero score on the gum criterion, said Richard Feliciano, a CTA pump manager in charge of general cleaning at the Kedzie garage.

Feliciano said his duties go far beyond making sure his crews have the proper supplies. His focus is motivating them to "get their heads in the zone."

"We communicate great with each other. I find out what their state of mind for the day is, and I find ways to motivate and reach them to find solutions so we get the job done," said Feliciano, 38, a former rail mechanic who has been with CTA for 15 years.

One of CTA customers' most common complaints over the years has been the look, feel and smell of bus interiors.

In a cost-cutting move in 2010, the CTA laid off more than 1,000 employees, including bus servicers, and reduced the amount of time spent cleaning buses. The move occurred as the transit agency was also increasing the size of its bus fleet and extending the number of hours buses were on the streets.

The result was predictable. The decline in bus appearance quality showed up in inspections the CTA carries out at each garage as part of a monthly performance review. The evaluation of the bus and rail systems checks on things such as service delays, safety problems and equipment failures. The scores for interior bus cleaning often missed their targets, lagging behind other performance categories.

Last summer, CTA officials increased the bus cleaning requirements and also toughened the inspection criteria for bus servicers to receive a high score. The scores nose-dived.

But in recent months there has been a turnaround. The March score card showed a 73.5 percent performance, which still missed the 85 percent target by more than 10 percentage points. April's performance rose to 78 percent, and the score increased again in May, to 84 percent, records show.

"The only way we are going to be better is to do the job the right way," Cavelle said.

This might be asking too much, but it would also help if some riders didn't treat the buses like a personal garbage truck or port-a-potty.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.