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The Utah Transit Authority is completing a $2.5 million effort to put video cameras on all its trains and buses — adding surveillance UTA says will improve safety, more easily settle legal claims and improve driver training and performance.

Agency officials are excited about the new system. UTA drivers aren't. They worry it will become a Big Brother spy network used to punish or dismiss targeted employees and the drivers' union has filed a formal grievance.

As of early this week, UTA hadn't advised riders that they are or soon will be under surveillance. But new stickers are supposed to be arriving that will be displayed on vehicles warning passengers of the monitoring as they board buses and trains.

Dave Goeres, UTA chief safety office, recently told board members that the new system uses cutting-edge technology to record incidents virtually everywhere on the transit network with 1,722 cameras on buses and trains, 470 on station platforms, 326 in parking lots and 144 at other UTA facilities.

Most buses have several cameras and a DVR continuously recording events inside and out, and the system will automatically download video of unusual events — such as hard braking or speeding.

"We'll get a 20-second snippet of that event, 10 seconds before and 10 seconds after," Goeres told the board's Finance and Operations committee.

Videos, which Goeres showed to the panel, contain symbols to indicate how fast a bus is traveling, whether brakes are applied, how far open the throttle is and the direction of travel.

Bus drivers also have a button that can mark points they want downloaded and saved, which Goeres said can help protect them in disputes over fares or handling unruly riders. He said telling problem passengers they are being recorded may help prevent conflicts from escalating.

UTA also saves video of any accidents, and can have its contractor go back and search for video if riders claim mistreatment or other problems.

Cameras on trains work a little differently. DVRs on trains can save video for up to five days. Incidents are not automatically downloaded, but UTA can go back and search for video of any reported problems (within five days) and save it.

Reaction • UTA executives told a board committee earlier this month that drivers like the new cameras. "The ones I have talked to out riding the system are enjoying the notion that they can record incidents [when] they have been accused of something," said UTA executive director Michael Allegra.

That view clashes with the drivers' union position.

"Allegra clearly doesn't even know what the opinion of the bus drivers is," said Joe Hatch, attorney for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 382. "It's shocking that they do not disclose [union objections] to their board. … It goes back to their imperial attitude. They really, truly believe they are entitled to do whatever they want."

Finance and Operations Committee Chairman Chris Bleak asked at the recent presentation how bus and train operators have reacted to the system. Goeres said despite initial hesitation, they now see "the benefit to them in their safety, their operations, better control of their buses."

When one board member said he heard the union had filed a grievance, Allegra brushed it off, saying drivers he talks to like the system, and added that most U.S. transit systems use similar video systems.

Hatch, the union lawyer, said the organization indeed filed a grievance — which he figures is headed for arbitration or court because UTA disagrees with union assertions.

Union grievance • "Under both Utah and federal law, any changes in working conditions must be negotiated," Hatch said. "UTA has systematically on this subject [of camera surveillance] refused to even superficially discuss this with the union."

Kim Ulibarri, UTA labor relations manager disagrees. She said UTA held multiple meetings on the issue with the union over several months, during which she said the union made unreasonable demands that videos not be used to resolve incidents involving operator misconduct.

"Although UTA has engaged in numerous discussions with the union on this issue, it does not agree with the union that the parties are obligated by law to bargain this issue because it does not change work rules for operators," she said.

Union President Rod Dunn said many drivers "think it's an invasion of privacy."

Drivers' performance already is monitored daily by scores of riders, Dunn said.

"I think [because disputes with riders] are so few and far between that to spend millions on cameras and make that operator a little more uncomfortable" is a waste.

Dunn said using cameras focused on the street to reconstruct accident data "is reasonable. But it's how they are using the cameras that are focused on the inside watching the drivers and the public" that concerns him. "How are those going to be used? We have issues."

He added, "I think it going to be more of a fishing expedition until I see otherwise."

Ulibarri denies the cameras are an attempt to trap or target employees.

"UTA does not intend to continually monitor cameras and look for problems," she said.

Goeres told the UTA board committee that videos are used "not to penalize our operators, but to coach them in safe operation behaviors."

The main purpose of the system is to review causes of accidents, and improve safety in the system, Goeres said in an email to The Tribune.

He said once drivers understand what triggers storing images, "they are receptive. Nearly every professional operator has faced situations where their recount of an event could not be independently corroborated. In reality, the majority of accidents — up to 75 percent — are caused by other drivers."

Goeres says videos also will improve driver performance by monitoring it.

"Part of the payment for this system is that SmartDrive [the contractor that retrieves and stores videos of problems] says we will have a 5 to 10 percent reduction in our fuel costs because of the improved operation of the buses. So we are monitoring that closely and will validate that," he said.

Goeres also told the board UTA considers the videos to be public, and that they can be requested and released through Utah open-record laws.

Twitter: @LeeHDavidson