Lax enforcement, slow investigations and poor leadership at the agency that oversees California's limousine, charter bus and airport shuttle companies could be putting passengers across the state in danger, according to an audit released Tuesday.
A new state review of 40 transportation investigations says Public Utility Commission cases required, on average, nearly 10 months to complete. The audit faulted the agency for not having a written policy on how to process complaints, prioritize investigations or close cases in a timely manner.
"We take the audit very seriously and will comply with all of the constructive recommendations," PUC spokesman Andrew Kotch said in a prepared statement. He said the agency has since improved its methods of collecting annual fees from operators, and is "mapping out corrective actions" for other cited issues.
The report comes less than a month after an Orange County teenager on her way to prom survived a fall out of a party bus and onto the 73 Freeway near Santa Ana. Investigators said the bus was operating without a license. Other recent accidents, including a limousine fire in the San Francisco Bay Area that killed a bride-to-be and four women attending her bachelorette party, have prompted calls from lawmakers for better enforcement.
Although the audit focused on limo, bus and shuttle investigations, the same department also handles a new sector of transportation — ride-sharing companies — that has proved difficult to regulate.
Last fall, California became the first state to formally regulate peer-to-peer ride-sharing companies such as Lyft and Uber. PUC transportation investigators are now enforcing new rules for those companies, including permits, background checks and vehicle inspections.
This month, the PUC sent letters to ride-sharing executives at Lyft, SideCar, Uber, Wingz and Summon, saying their drivers were making trips to major airports without proper permits.
Auditors said transportation investigators issued citations in half the cases where they found violations. Fines were issued infrequently, the audit said, and total fees were about $1.5 million lower than what state law requires.
The department took an average of 46 days to begin an investigation after receiving a complaint, and completing an investigation took an average of 238 days, the audit said. On average, citations went out more than five months after investigators found a violation.
In one case, investigators found that a carrier had not enrolled four of its drivers in drug and alcohol screenings, nor had it submitted the names of five drivers to a Department of Motor Vehicles database that monitors drivers' records.
The investigator issued a citation eight months later.
"When the commission fails to take all necessary actions … it puts passengers and the public at risk," state auditor Elaine M. Howle wrote.
In more than 40% of cases, the audit said, investigators did shoddy casework, including not visiting the operator's headquarters to examine records or otherwise not confirming whether the carrier was operating legally.
By the end of this year, the audit said, the state PUC should develop procedures for receiving complaints and investigating operators with expediency.