Shortage of drivers has Metro in a bind

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; B01

Metro has a critical shortage of hundreds of bus drivers needed not only to operate buses but also to fill vacancies in the ranks of train operators and rail station managers, and it will take at least two years to close the gap, senior Metro officials said.

As Metro scrambles to keep transit services running, the agency is spending 50 percent more than its goal in overtime for bus drivers, the officials said.

"We do have this very significant need to fill the bus operator ranks," said Gary Baldwin, Metro's director of human resources.

Metro needs to increase the pool of bus operators to fill more than 210 vacancies - 91 for bus operators, 62 for train operators and 61 for station managers, said Jack Requa, Metro's assistant general manager of bus services.

Bus operators are used to fill vacancies in the ranks of rail operators and station managers, said Requa, making the recruiting burden heavier. He said about a third of each class of new bus operators goes to make up for attrition and to "just keep us whole."

Metro has about 2,440 positions for bus operators, 560 for train operators and 500 for station managers.

The shortfall of drivers is one of several problems facing Metro's bus service, the sixth-largest in the United States, with about 1,500 buses and an average weekday ridership of more than 400,000.

Bus ridership has declined as a result of the economic downturn and this year's fare increases, according to the transit agency. Weekday ridership dropped more than 7 percent in the first four months of the fiscal year that began in July.

On-time performance by buses - defined as arriving no more than two minutes early or 7 minutes late - is running at less than 75 percent, compared with Metro's target of 80 percent.

Metro officials say the bus driver shortage resulted in part from a hiring freeze implemented in December 2008, when the transit agency had "no appreciable bus operator vacancies," according to an internal memo on the topic last month.

A few months later, in spring 2009, bus and rail officials realized that they needed to start hiring bus operator trainees again, but it was not until September 2009 that Metro resumed recruiting the required number of trainees each month, in part because an internal review was required to restart recruitment.

Meanwhile, Metro was losing about 10 bus operators a month through retirement, termination or other forms of attrition. As a result, the number of bus operator vacancies rose from fewer than 70 to between 100 and 130, according to Metro data.

At the same time, Metro's pool of people vetted and qualified to become bus operators dwindled by more than 60 percent, as people in the pool found other jobs or were unable to pass Metro's new, more stringent hiring standards, according to Baldwin. Metro tightened its hiring rules in August 2009, making it more difficult for people with criminal convictions to qualify for positions.

"We have a huge deficit," Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles told a meeting of Metro's board of directors in October. "If we don't take care of that bubble, we will not have bus drivers to drive the buses," Sarles said.

At the meeting, the Metro staff asked the board to approve a $750,000 contract to accelerate screening of bus driver applicants. Outside help was needed, Baldwin said, because about 1,000 applicants have to be screened to come up with a class of 30 candidates each month. Board members, however, rejected the plan, saying it was too costly.

Now, Metro is implementing a "recovery plan" in an attempt to reduce the bus operator vacancies to no more than 70, although Requa said he thinks the number should be closer to 50. "We have people coming and going with sickness or whatever, and 50 to 70 is a number we can live with," he said.

After enlarging the recruiting and training staff, Metro has increased the size of monthly bus operator classes from 24 to 30 and plans to ramp up to 40 in the next few months. "We will sustain that until we close the delta, which we estimate will take at least two years," Baldwin said.

One of the key recruiting bottlenecks is identifying people who have a commercial driver's license. Baldwin said Metro plans to reach out to driving schools and community organizations to find qualified applicants. "We are not going to change our standards. The standards are important," Baldwin said.

Meanwhile, overtime spending continues to be high. Overtime accounts for about 15 percent of what Metro is paying bus drivers, compared with a goal of 10 percent, Requa said. A fully certified bus operator makes about $16 an hour to start, and the pay scale rises to about $28 an hour after about 20 years of service.

Metro's overall overtime expenses for fiscal 2010 were more than $75 million, and Metro has budgeted only $48 million for overtime for the current fiscal year.

"With a shortage of Metro bus operators, hiring existing operators to work overtime is an unavoidable solution for keeping the system going," said Jackie L. Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro employees.

"The woman standing at a bus stop on the coldest night of the year doesn't want to hear that her bus is late because Metro doesn't have enough bus operators."

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