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MTS can't get enough bus drivers

While trolley expands to UCSD, eight percent of weekday bus trips cut

24 weekday trips have been eliminated from Rapid Route 215, which runs from downtown to San Diego State University.
24 weekday trips have been eliminated from Rapid Route 215, which runs from downtown to San Diego State University.

Headlines at the website of Metropolitan Transit System or MTS, the agency that operates the buses and light rail in the city, rave about the recent expansion of the San Diego Trolley with nine new stops that stretch all the way to Clairemont, Pacific Beach, La Jolla and UCSD.

But meanwhile, some passengers who rely on the bus -- people with places to go, people to see and time clocks to punch -- have been left waiting at bus stops. And waiting. And waiting.

Under the new contract, new hires will make $20.21 an hour.

During the October-November period, passengers lodged some 30 complaints because the bus they were waiting for simply didn't show up. The complaints are troubling, said MTS CEO Sharon Cooney, who publicly acknowledged the problem at the October 14 meeting of the MTS board of directors.

"The big (challenge) we're really wrestling with right now is missed service," Cooney told the Board.

The reason? As the post-pandemic economy has reopened, MTS hasn't been able to field enough bus drivers to run all its trips. As a result, MTS officials have resorted to canceling trips on an informal, unannounced basis.

This Route 11 schedule was accurate until Nov. 21, when MTS eliminated six of the listed trips.

"It may be you don't have enough drivers so you strategically plan it the week before. For instance, you get an unusual number of call-offs for sickness. Those are all unforeseen when you wrote the timetable," Cooney said last week, contacted by phone.

Last month, MTS officials approved an additional step. On November 21 – the same date as the ribbon-cutting of the trolley expansion – MTS quietly eliminated a total of 239 trips affecting 16 bus routes, all of which operated on the Monday through Friday schedule. In all, eight percent of weekday bus trips have been cut, Cooney said.

"It was an attempt to right-size the service levels that we publish for our customers to the number of drivers we have," Cooney said.

MTS has detailed the cuts on its website, though finding it is not exactly intuitive. It's found under the heading "Alerts and Detours" where it says "No major alerts or detours at this time. See a list of all Alerts & Detours."

Route 7 received the most reductions of any of the routes – 31 eliminated trips.

MTS chose the same November 21 date to publish updates of most of its route timetables -- none of which account for the reductions. Printing deadlines were too early, considering the volume of changes necessary to accommodate the trolley extension, such as the creation of new bus routes that act as feeders to the trolley, Cooney said.

More cuts could be on the horizon. MTS will conduct a review next month that could lead to more eliminated trips, she said.

Signs of the shortage emerged early this year. The number of applicants for open positions declined. People approved for training school weren't showing up. But Cooney is hopeful stepped-up recruitment efforts could right the ship by June of next year.

"We immediately jumped on it," Cooney said, with "serious efforts to get more (drivers)."

She said MTS has agreed to increases in pay, bonuses and health care benefits in a new contract with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1309, or the San Diego Bus Drivers Union. A vote to ratify the contract was scheduled December 6, according to the union's website. The union's negotiating team recommended a yes vote, said union president/business agent Cesar Buenaventura, in a statement posted on the website. (An employee who answered the phone at the union office on December 7 said the contract was approved, and will go to the MTS board next month.)

"The improvements we want to make on behalf of the employees is in recognition that they have a tough job. And we want to compensate them for that," she said.

Starting pay for a bus driver is currently $19.06 an hour. Cooney said it was "pretty comparable" in the Southern California region.

Under the new contract, new hires will make $20.21 an hour. For the duration of the three-year contract, drivers will receive annual pay increases of three percent except drivers on the job more than 66 months, who will get four percent, according to the union website.

In some cases, people applying for bus driver positions may be offered employment the same day, Cooney said.

Bus driver shortages are not unique to MTS. School districts in Coronado, Poway, and throughout the county have reported severe shortages that those officials say reflect national trends. During a single week in September, a lack of drivers reportedly forced the North County Transit District to cancel forty bus trips.

"It really is a fluid situation and we're trying our best to . . .fill as many of our positions as possible so it doesn't impact our riders," Cooney said.

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24 weekday trips have been eliminated from Rapid Route 215, which runs from downtown to San Diego State University.
24 weekday trips have been eliminated from Rapid Route 215, which runs from downtown to San Diego State University.

Headlines at the website of Metropolitan Transit System or MTS, the agency that operates the buses and light rail in the city, rave about the recent expansion of the San Diego Trolley with nine new stops that stretch all the way to Clairemont, Pacific Beach, La Jolla and UCSD.

But meanwhile, some passengers who rely on the bus -- people with places to go, people to see and time clocks to punch -- have been left waiting at bus stops. And waiting. And waiting.

Under the new contract, new hires will make $20.21 an hour.

During the October-November period, passengers lodged some 30 complaints because the bus they were waiting for simply didn't show up. The complaints are troubling, said MTS CEO Sharon Cooney, who publicly acknowledged the problem at the October 14 meeting of the MTS board of directors.

"The big (challenge) we're really wrestling with right now is missed service," Cooney told the Board.

The reason? As the post-pandemic economy has reopened, MTS hasn't been able to field enough bus drivers to run all its trips. As a result, MTS officials have resorted to canceling trips on an informal, unannounced basis.

This Route 11 schedule was accurate until Nov. 21, when MTS eliminated six of the listed trips.

"It may be you don't have enough drivers so you strategically plan it the week before. For instance, you get an unusual number of call-offs for sickness. Those are all unforeseen when you wrote the timetable," Cooney said last week, contacted by phone.

Last month, MTS officials approved an additional step. On November 21 – the same date as the ribbon-cutting of the trolley expansion – MTS quietly eliminated a total of 239 trips affecting 16 bus routes, all of which operated on the Monday through Friday schedule. In all, eight percent of weekday bus trips have been cut, Cooney said.

"It was an attempt to right-size the service levels that we publish for our customers to the number of drivers we have," Cooney said.

MTS has detailed the cuts on its website, though finding it is not exactly intuitive. It's found under the heading "Alerts and Detours" where it says "No major alerts or detours at this time. See a list of all Alerts & Detours."

Route 7 received the most reductions of any of the routes – 31 eliminated trips.

MTS chose the same November 21 date to publish updates of most of its route timetables -- none of which account for the reductions. Printing deadlines were too early, considering the volume of changes necessary to accommodate the trolley extension, such as the creation of new bus routes that act as feeders to the trolley, Cooney said.

More cuts could be on the horizon. MTS will conduct a review next month that could lead to more eliminated trips, she said.

Signs of the shortage emerged early this year. The number of applicants for open positions declined. People approved for training school weren't showing up. But Cooney is hopeful stepped-up recruitment efforts could right the ship by June of next year.

"We immediately jumped on it," Cooney said, with "serious efforts to get more (drivers)."

She said MTS has agreed to increases in pay, bonuses and health care benefits in a new contract with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1309, or the San Diego Bus Drivers Union. A vote to ratify the contract was scheduled December 6, according to the union's website. The union's negotiating team recommended a yes vote, said union president/business agent Cesar Buenaventura, in a statement posted on the website. (An employee who answered the phone at the union office on December 7 said the contract was approved, and will go to the MTS board next month.)

"The improvements we want to make on behalf of the employees is in recognition that they have a tough job. And we want to compensate them for that," she said.

Starting pay for a bus driver is currently $19.06 an hour. Cooney said it was "pretty comparable" in the Southern California region.

Under the new contract, new hires will make $20.21 an hour. For the duration of the three-year contract, drivers will receive annual pay increases of three percent except drivers on the job more than 66 months, who will get four percent, according to the union website.

In some cases, people applying for bus driver positions may be offered employment the same day, Cooney said.

Bus driver shortages are not unique to MTS. School districts in Coronado, Poway, and throughout the county have reported severe shortages that those officials say reflect national trends. During a single week in September, a lack of drivers reportedly forced the North County Transit District to cancel forty bus trips.

"It really is a fluid situation and we're trying our best to . . .fill as many of our positions as possible so it doesn't impact our riders," Cooney said.

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Comments
12

The No. 7 bus actually has had too many trips along University for some time. It uses mostly double-buses, which are rarely even half full. Meanwhile the #10 bus doesn't operate enough. And the 215 Express bus can get by with fewer trips. The 10 needs more, because of its many riders, including visitors, going to Old Town. It's often filled up. Does Cooney actually get out and ride the different bus routes to see for herself how full the bus is? If not, why not?

Dec. 7, 2021

This CEO isn't your usual public bureaucrat; she admits that things are haywire when they are. She is so unlike her late predecessor, a smooth-talking dude who always portrayed the situation at MTS as perfect, or nearly so. She doesn't claim to be transparent, she is transparent with her comments. We all should appreciate that sort of dealing with the public and encourage it.

As to the pay being offered, about $20 an hour, it doesn't sound all that attractive now. Decades ago the pay for San Diego Transit (what MTS was called at the time) drivers were taking down over $20K a year typically, equating to about $10 an hour. With the high cost of housing, utilities, and a host of other household expenses in SD now, this starting wage is barely a living wage. I have to wonder what the turnout of applicants would be if the pay started at, say, $25 an hour.

This woman is one of the highest paid public employees in the county, maybe the highest paid. Her late predecessor was earning roughly four times the salary of the mayor of SD. Her salary must be comparable to his. For that kind of reward, I hope that she really takes the job seriously. One chronic problem was that MTS could not keep its buses on schedule, with long delays and then two or even three buses on the same routs all showing up within about two minutes. If she can solve that issue, it would encourage more folks to ride the Coaster in from No County to work, and make that train an even bigger success. Many potential riders of the Coaster need a MTS bus to cover that last mile, and it needs to run on time.

Dec. 9, 2021

The pay is low, but so are the qualifications. A high school diploma, a license and a clean driving record isn't asking for much, so don't expect high pay. Funny how that works. And what exactly is a "living wage?" Do married men with a wife and children expect to get paid more than a single man or woman who is young and living at home? Or in their own apartment without a mortgage? Jobs pay what they pay. In a non-union job, you're not paid what you're worth. You're paid what you negotiate. A union job - union scale. Take it or leave it.

Buses (like any transportation) should run on time, but I can see why it's a problem. They're dealing with traffic, and traffic is unpredictable.

Dec. 9, 2021

We're in a new economy, so the old pay rates are no longer valid. In Kansas, $20 an hour is fine. In San Diego, it's still way too low, due to the outrageous housing costs now. One needs at least $30 an hour now to stay out of poverty. The MTS CEO is way OVERPAID, and probably other execs are also making too much money for what they do. Bus drivers deserve more pay, because it's a demanding job.

Dec. 11, 2021

There is no such thing as a "living wage" because no two people live the same lifestyle. $30 an hour could be heaven to one person and the next guy could easily be on the streets.

Dec. 11, 2021

Actually there IS such a thing as a "living wage." A living wage is defined as the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs.

Dec. 13, 2021

And no two people have the same "basic needs." You have to decide what you want to do for a living, meet the educational requirements (or lack thereof) find a job, and if the job doesn't pay enough you have your options. You can't paint everyone with a broad brush, and that's what a living wage does.

A "living wage" will differ for married men, married men with children, married men that have wives with careers or stay at home moms, single moms receiving child support, single moms not receiving child support, single people living at home, single people living in a rented apartment or house, or homeowners with a mortgage and property taxes, regardless of children or marital status. Did I leave anyone out?

Also -- it's not what you make, it's what you do with it. There are spendthrifts, cheap people and everyone in between.

A "living wage" may sound good in theory, but it's a pipedream. For all the reasons spelled out above. You need to take personal responsibility for your life, and if the job doesn't pay to your likings, don't take the job. There are more than a few people who will easily take a $20 dollar an hour job. They're probably unemployed or making less money, and an MTS job (with benefits) is better than they're currently doing, and I'm happy for them.

Peace!

Dec. 13, 2021

READ AND LEARN:

California living wages - 1 ADULT 0 Children 1 Child Living Wage $18.66 $40.34 Poverty Wage $6.13 $8.29 Minimum Wage $12 $12

Dec. 21, 2021

Union contracts don't pay per marital status or children. They pay across the board. Those figures are irrelevant.

Dec. 21, 2021

No, your comments are irrelevant. There was no mention of unions in what I posted. And it doesn't refer to bus drivers.

Dec. 21, 2021

Quick update: The MTS Board of Directors voted 12-0 to approve the bus drivers contract at their Dec. 16 meeting. (I said the vote would be at the January 2022 meeting -- my apologies for the error.)

Dec. 29, 2021

Whatever they get paid is NOT enough. Even with their plastic shield and mask, MYS drivers are still at risk. I wouldn't do that job for $300 per hour!

Jan. 17, 2022

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