State auditor targets PUC’s transportation section

State auditors say the Public Utilities Commission’s transportation section has failed to adequately oversee limos, buses, and shuttles, as well as such ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, according to a sharply critical state audit.

The Bureau of State Audits — reviewing 40 investigations in the Transportation Enforcement Branch — say the PUC has put the public at risk by conducting sluggish investigations, providing only lenient enforcement and by failing to collect necessary fines  from violators. The review was prompted in part by the deaths last year of a bride and four friends in a limousine fire accident on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.

The audit, which can be seen here, concludes that these issues have been brought about by poor leadership and unclear guidelines and procedures.

“I really didn’t think it was going to be this bad, that we’d find such a lack of oversight and so many safety concerns,” state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, who requested the audit, said in a statement. “People aren’t doing their jobs.”

According to the report, it takes on average 46 days for the PUC to commence an investigation, and 238 days to complete it once a complaint is received. On average, citations are sent out more than five months after a violation has occurred.

The branch cannot adequately deal with consumer complaints it receives in a timely manner, as there is a high turnover rate amongst staff and lack of clear procedure to deal with violation claims.

The report disclosed that in more than 40% of cases, investigators conducted faulty examinations. In some cases, PUC safety inspectors held investigations by telephone call only, never examining potentially dangerous vehicles in person.

Approximately 10% of consumer complaints were never logged into the PUC database by investigators.

Last year, California began regulating peer-to-peer ride-sharing companies. These companies have proven difficult for the PUC to regulate, the branch’s policy and procedures manual – published in 1992 – does not seem adequately prepared to address this new sector of transportation.

The commission failed to collect the proper amount of fee revenue from passenger carriers, issuing citations in only half the cases in which there violations found. Infrequently-issued fines led to total fees $1.5 million below requirements by state law.

PUC Executive Director Paul Clanon said in a statement that he and President Michael Peevey “largely agree with the audit’s individual findings” but “respectfully disagree with the over-arching conclusion that PUC fails to adequately ensure consumers’ transportation safety.”

The audit concluded that inadequate investigation efforts have stemmed from a lack of written guidance for staff to follow when receiving or investigating complaints. It recommended the PUC develop clear new procedures by the end of the year for receiving complaints and investigating operators expediently.

Ed’s Note:  Mia Shaw is a Capitol Weekly intern from UC Berkeley and a participant in the public affairs journalism program at UC’s Sacramento Center.


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