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Bus driver shortage hurts D.C. region’s ability to return to pre-pandemic transit service levels

The staffing problem could escalate as more people resume normal routines and commutes in the new year

People wait for a bus at the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center in downtown Silver Spring, Md., earlier this month. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
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Nearly two years into the pandemic, transit systems battling a decline in passengers and fare revenue in the Washington region are facing another hurdle: a bus driver shortage that threatens their ability to resume normal operations.

Some bus systems can’t return to pre-pandemic service levels because they don’t have enough workers to drive the routes, transit officials said, while others are delaying service enhancements. The staffing problem, a reflection of a national labor shortage, could escalate as more people resume normal routines and commutes in the new year.

“We are having challenges — just like every other organization that relies on people with commercial driver’s licenses — to have the staff available to fully restore the service the way we hope to,” said Chris Conklin, transportation director in Montgomery County, which runs the region’s second-largest bus system.

The shortage is another hindrance to the region’s return to normalcy amid the pandemic and the latest twist for transit organizations seeking to capitalize on a return to in-person work.

Montgomery County’s Ride On system, which is operating at about 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels, had planned to be closer to a normal schedule this fall before encountering a shortage of drivers. The transit agency has about 75 open driver jobs, which is about 10 percent of its budgeted positions. Recruitment efforts in recent months have yielded a small pool of workers amid increased competition with other local transit systems that also are hiring.

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Metrobus, D.C. Circulator, Prince George’s County’s TheBus and Fairfax Connector are reporting staffing vacancies of up to 15 percent, with many of those including driver positions.

The shortages have resulted in route adjustments and bus delays, some transit officials and labor leaders say, although most problems have been minor because of lower demand for transit. Problems could multiply after the holidays as more residents are expected to resume commutes.

A worker shortage that has touched several U.S. industries in the past year has hit the transportation sector particularly hard. Bus driver shortages are plaguing school districts, while the trucking industry is working through a massive shortage of drivers during a supply-chain crisis.

In some cities, transit agencies grappling with a scarcity of bus drivers are turning to route changes and service cuts.

Pam Boswell, vice president of workforce development at the American Public Transportation Association, said transit agencies are rethinking their service levels as they grapple with staffing challenges, and looking at how to be more flexible in meeting the needs of riders. In the long term, operators will need to identify different talent pools to attract transit workers, she said.

“Our industry is going to have to really continue to be innovative,” she said. “We’re seeing community colleges and tech schools and vocational schools being strong partners with many of our agencies across the country. And it’s been very successful because the students are coming out of the local area.”

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While transit agencies in the Washington area have not reduced operations, some systems say expanding or returning to pre-pandemic schedules could be a challenge as they struggle to attract and retain workers with commercial driver’s licenses and experience in transit.

“Many of those challenges are due to increased compensation and entrance salaries, bonuses and incentives offered by private-sector companies, which make for a more competitive market in the local government sector,” said Paulette Jones, spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation. The agency is also competing to hire commercial licensed drivers for its highway-maintenance operations.

Metrobus, which is operating at 97 percent of pre-pandemic levels, has been mostly spared. Metro has 2,369 full-time bus operators out of the 2,440 needed to meet its December schedule, agency spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.

The system is still recruiting bus operators to account for retirements and employees who leave or move to other positions within Metro, Ly said.

Metro’s benefits and wages are the most competitive for transit workers in the region, making it a draw for experienced drivers. Drivers from smaller bus systems often move on to Metro.

Raymond Jackson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents workers at Metrobus, D.C. Circulator, Fairfax Connector, Alexandria’s DASH, Loudoun County Transit and MetroAccess, said compensation for transit positions at some local systems is not competitive enough in an economic environment where people with commercial licenses are in high demand.

“We are having a problem, but I really don’t think the problem is the driver shortage. I think that the problem is the wage shortage,” he said. “Blue-collar workers in this country have had enough and that’s what we are seeing. We just want fair wages and fair benefits. That’s all we’re asking for.”

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Some smaller bus systems, including D.C. Circulator and Fairfax Connector, are funded by local governments but operated by private transit companies that historically have offered lower wages and few or no retirement benefits. Montgomery’s Ride On is operated by the county transportation department and DASH is operated by the Alexandria Transit Co., which is owned by the city.

Bus drivers start at $18.54 an hour at D.C. Circulator, $20.29 at Fairfax Connector and $21.96 at DASH, according to the union. Metrobus drivers start at $20 during training and $25.51 after graduating from its training program.

“Metro is able to bring those people in with those good wages and benefits,” said Brian Wivell, political director at ATU Local 689.

In the District, D.C. Circulator has 27 full-time and five part-time driver positions open — roughly 15 percent of the level required to staff the system.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT), which funds the Circulator, attributed the shortage to terminations and resignations during the pandemic. DDOT said Circulator recruited during the pandemic when other transportation providers laid off operators, but now it’s more difficult because those systems are hiring again.

“The driver shortage does impact the ability to meet D.C. Circulator’s existing service requirements and may affect future considerations for increased service levels and/or expansions,” DDOT said in a statement. Its transit contractor, RATP Dev, is relying on overtime to address service gaps, the department said.

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Officials with RATP Dev, which also runs service for Prince George’s TheBus and three dozen other transit operations in the United States, said they are prioritizing recruiting in the Washington region, while offering a sign-on bonus to lure workers. Melissa Ferrer-Smith, chief people officer at RATP Dev USA, said the shortage is a big concern in some markets — including Washington — and has affected operations, but she declined to elaborate.

In Prince George’s, TheBus is about 12 drivers down from optimal staffing levels, said Jones, from the Department of Public Works and Transportation. The system is also in need of mechanics.

Across the Potomac River, Fairfax Connector has about 4 percent of driver positions open, spokeswoman Robin Geiger said. The region’s third-largest bus system restored pre-pandemic levels more than a year ago, she said, adding that the system’s ability to successfully recruit “will be an important determining factor for future transit-service expansions.”

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Transit officials say they are stepping up recruitment efforts, while weighing wage increases and other incentives. Montgomery County this fall used a social media and email campaign to advertise its transit jobs and is gearing up for interior bus signs on nearly 400 buses, with exterior ads on up to 100, as well as radio commercials.

Applicants have to be at least 21 and don’t need a commercial driver’s license because the county will pay for training. The starting annual salary is $42,000 and goes to about $69,000, with a competitive benefits package, the county said.

Montgomery’s bus system has 631 drivers, down 50 from before the pandemic and below the 705 operators for which the agency budgeted. With all routes and programs running, the system needs to boost staffing levels to resume pre-pandemic bus frequencies. The agency hopes to be at full service in early 2022.

“We are upping our recruitment and training activities to try to get more folks on staff to be able to deliver the schedule,” said Conklin, the country transportation director.