| photo courtesy of NCTD

Since the 1970s, the North County Transit District has served as an essential link along the second-busiest rail corridor in the country. It’s responsible for 12 million boardings annually between Oceanside, Escondido, and the city of San Diego. It runs seven locomotives, 144 buses and, until last month, 12 light-rail vehicles.

It endured the great recession, when the threat of massive federal and state funding cuts led transportation agencies around the country to cut services and downsize staff. It survived, undeniably, due to the bold decisions of the agency’s executive director, Matthew Tucker.

Through outsourcing, Tucker transformed the organization from a public transportation agency to what he described as a “contract-management” agency. The majority of North County Transit’s services — including bus operations, maintenance and dispatch — were privatized, with laid-off employees given hiring preference within the new contracting companies.

In a speech the year following the downsizing, Tucker explained how, given the circumstances he inherited and such a weak economy, outsourcing was the best option.

Tucker’s leadership was applauded by many, and as expected, vilified by those left in his wake.

But what happened next is the subject of our newest investigation.

Money, Power and Transit

As a contract-management agency, oversight was paramount. Oversight for the bus contractors to perform as required; for the safety and security operations to run smoothly; for the SPRINTER light-rail vehicle to be maintained; and for the district’s bus services for the disabled to be safe and on time.

Yet, as recent news stories and internal audits have confirmed, it isn’t happening.

Bus service has been cut while on-time performance has continually failed to reach district benchmarks. The budget for security was cut in half during Tucker’s first year, and just last month, an internal audit found severe deficiencies in both the training and contractual obligations between North County Transit and its private security contractor.

The SPRINTER was shut down March 9, 2013, since state inspectors found brake rotors worn beyond compliance. An audit last year found the district’s “paratransit” service — which shuttles the disabled — was not only running well below contractual standards, but supervisors didn’t even know where their contractor’s office was located.

Both the problems cited in the audit and the SPRINTER situation can be linked to a high rate of turnover among upper level managers responsible for oversight. In her resignation letter, the director of technology referred to a “vacuum” of knowledge. Since Tucker arrived in 2009, 21 of the agency’s top 25 positions have turned over at least once, with some positions turning over as many as five times. Tucker says the high turnover was caused by the magnitude of the changes going on inside the agency and by the budget crisis that sapped NCTD of needed expertise.

The exodus took its toll. Within three years, NCTD paid out more than a quarter-million dollars in severance payments among just ten of those managers, and has paid an executive search company hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace them.

A triennial review by the federal government last year found more deficiencies within the district’s operations than at any point in its history. One of the deficiencies cited was the misuse of half a million dollars of federal funding.

Throughout our months of reporting, NCTD’s Board of Directors — representatives who are ultimately responsible for the agency — have been almost entirely silent. Despite multiple attempts, nearly every board member has declined to answer any of our questions about the state of the agency, its operations or its accountability.

Interviews and public records, as well as confidential letters and data analyses, are the foundation of our reports on issues of oversight, turnover and money.

This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. May 2, 2013

1. Lack of Oversight Leads to North County Transit District Problems.

Four years ago, North County Transit’s new CEO overhauled the agency and outsourced services. An investigation shows the move had unintended consequences. READ MORE…

2. North County Transit District’s revolving door costs big.

The turnover among upper management at North County Transit District has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and has, at times, put riders at risk. READ MORE…

3. North County Transit District’s Smaller Contracts.

During Tucker’s first four months on the job, North County Transit awarded $1.7 million in consulting contacts, some to Tucker’s former colleagues. READ MORE…

Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...