Editorial: Smart thinking drives fix for transit conundrum

City Hall has come up with an outside-the-box plan to deal with a problem made bigger by the pandemic. And it’s one that should be developed and put into practice for the long haul.

An ABQ Ride Sun Van                                                                                                      Journal file

Faced with a shortage of drivers with commercial licenses to drive the big city buses, the Transit Department is substituting Sun Vans, with drivers who are not required to have a commercial license, for some less busy routes. Voila!

Problem solved for now, at least. But it’s an idea that might be of merit even after “normal” returns.

The pandemic has contributed to a shortage of drivers for regular established routes. But ridership across the city for both regular and Sun Van service is about half of what it was before the pandemic kept many people home except for critical trips. In an attempt to restore bus service to pre-pandemic levels, officials put their thinking caps on and decided that some Sun Van drivers could shift into driving routes that have low passenger usage. Sun Van service typically is on-demand.

As an example, instead of a 40-foot bus going to the Rail Runner station at El Pueblo, Sun Vans could be pressed into service, according to Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael. “We’re using a Sun Van that has the capacity to carry whatever passengers need the service,” he said at a news conference last week. “As we get more and more folks hired and trained with CDLs, we’ll move back to the full bus operations in some of those areas.”

But why go back to full-size buses on routes the city may already know are low usage and could be better served by a van? Big, lumbering buses take up more room in traffic than vans, their weight makes them harder on pavement, and they likely have a much larger carbon footprint.

This is the perfect opportunity for the city to test drive a new, more efficient and climate friendlier way of providing public transportation. And who hasn’t winced at the sight of a large city bus carrying only a couple of passengers?

There is room for another fix. One quirky factor that leads to a shortage of drivers is that after drivers get a CDL license, they often jump departments over to Solid Waste, i.e. trash pickup, because those jobs pay more – $18.34/hour to start and a $1 raise after six months compared to $14.28/hour to start and $16.32 after six months for bus drivers. Hey, who can blame the drivers?

That disparity, according to city officials, is because pay rates are determined by collective bargaining agreements. The city says it has been working to close the gap, and it should. Garbage trucks haul heavier loads than buses and spend most of their time maneuvering on residential streets, but buses carry a much more precious cargo. Drivers of both vehicles should have the highest possible skills.

City officials deserve credit for coming up with a common sense solution. But this thinking should not be temporary. There are lessons here that can be learned for the long term.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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