Panther Express Shuttle service causes tension and worries

Co-author: Phebe Dowels

The Panther Express Shuttles have been a source of problems for Georgia State and its students this past semester.

First Transit, a contracted transportation service provider that operates and owns the Panther Express Shuttles, disciplined and suspended several drivers in fall of 2012, according to emails obtained by The Signal.

Student complaints sent to administrators from Auxiliary and Support Services mentioned incidents where drivers did not respond to students’ questions, shut the bus doors in students’ faces, drove recklessly and one incident where a driver allegedly kissed a student.

While First Transit boasts a thorough training program, at least five written complaints were filed last semester, and several verbal ones, where drivers failed to comply with company policy and acted inappropriately in front of students.

“While our tour guide was facilitating the bus tour, he heard and saw both inappropriate language and behavior coming from our driver, who was clearly…frustrated by the traffic,” one complaint said. “Additionally, she then got off the bus, while the bus was in the intersection and began raising her voice and speaking inappropriately to the car in front of her. This occurred in front of all of our campus visitors, while the bus was in the middle of the road. Profanity was used throughout these exchanges.”

After receiving this complaint, Assistant Vice President of Auxiliary and Support Services, Wayne Reed, contacted Herold Humphrey, region director of operations of First Transit.

In the email, Reed mentioned that the incident created “significant safety concerns but also immensely embarrassing circumstances for the tour guide, the passengers on board and the reputation of Georgia State University.”

According to Humphrey’s response, the driver was removed from service at Georgia State–though it was not stated whether the driver was let go.

“In addressing the various complaints that we have received…just before the beginning of spring semester 2013, both university officials and the contractor met with the drivers currently assigned to Panther Express services, in which emphasis was placed on the importance of high quality services to our students who are passengers on the Panther Express [shuttles],” Reed said.

According to First Transit’s website, all drivers must attend interviews with First Transit’s safety and operations managers and successfully complete 54 hours of First Transit’s training program, which includes customer service training, defensive training and how to interact with passengers.

When First Transit receives a complaint, it begins by conducting a full investigation into the issue.

At the conclusion of the investigation, management determines the course of action such as retraining or progressive discipline to ensure the issue does not reoccur.

“First Transit takes any complaint it receives very seriously. Depending on the nature of the complaint, we will attempt to resolve the issue internally or involve university officials is it requires their involvement,” said Timothy Stokes, First Transit spokesman.

Despite the numerous complaints, Stokes said that the company is still “proud of the drivers we have at [the] location and proud of the service we provide our passengers daily. We will continue to work closely with university officials and its students to provide a safe and reliable transportation service.”

Several emails between First Transit and Auxiliary and Support Services expose a tension between the groups.

In an incident where a bus driver allegedly kissed a student First Transit was the first one notified by the driver that Georgia State may receive a complaint from a parent.

“Are you serious? What does Mr. Ivey have to say about all this?” Michael Sproston, director of Parking and Transportation, wrote in an email to First Transit. “There are way too many complaints coming in. We need to get things corrected. This latest complaint with [the driver] could be disastrous. Do I need to be involved in the meeting?”

According to the emails, the driver denied the allegations but “assumed that he and the student were friends.”

The driver was ultimately removed from Georgia State and let go.

“If it’s not working now, what makes people think that it’s going to work once we get new buses?” Georgia State student Jareth Thomas said. “If it doesn’t cost me anything, then sure, why not? But, if it costs me more and the service doesn’t improve, then why charge me?”

In most cases, First Transit disciplined the drivers that acted inappropriately by suspending them, moving them to another area or letting them go. However, the emails between Auxiliary and Support Services and First Transit depict a tension that is growing from the continuing incidents and complaints.

“I’ve never had a bad experience on the shuttles, not that I ride them that often,” Georgia State student Elara Wilson said. “but, what I’m wondering is what the actual problem is…they keep disciplining and it keeps happening.”

The future of First Transit at Georgia State depends on the approval of a proposal for new buses, though no details on the proposal could be acquired by The Signal.

“The university is planning to issue a request for proposals to replace the current bus fleet with new buses,” Sproston said. “Depending on the results on the request for the proposals, we could have a new provider or the same provider.”