With 86 bus driver vacancies, City Transit Department plans to suspend some service - Albuquerque Journal

With 86 bus driver vacancies, City Transit Department plans to suspend some service

The city of Albuquerque Transit Department will soon propose service suspensions as it continues grappling with staffing shortages. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

City Transit Department officials say they are looking to suspend additional bus service due to ongoing staffing challenges that have routinely disrupted its 40 routes and left passengers stranded.

ABQ RIDE’s leadership on Tuesday provided an update on the dire situation inside a department where 183 of 567 jobs are currently vacant. That includes 86 bus driver positions and 32 paratransit (Sun Van) driver jobs, though the city also needs more Transit mechanics and workers to clean and fuel the vehicles overnight. There are also just four employees tending to the city’s 2,807 bus stops, though there should be 11, officials said.

While the department has yet to fully rebound from the pandemic – service levels and ridership remain about 80% of what they were before COVID – Transit Director Leslie Keener said it has become difficult to operate at even that capacity.

“The vacancies are problematic; we’re struggling to keep up with the current scheduled service levels … and it’s been resulting in less reliability to our service,” Keener said in a virtual media briefing, noting officials fully understand the public’s “frustrations and concerns” with the situation.

Staffing shortages mean the ABQ RIDE system is failing to provide about 500 hours of what should be about 7,100 hours per week of service.

“We attempt each day to cover as many trips as possible. This has included utilizing drivers on their day off, as well as having supervisors drive,” Transit Deputy Director Mike Davis said. “Overall, this missed service impacts the trip planning of our passengers.”

The department recently added a feature to its smartphone app that lets passengers see cancellations in real time, Davis said.

But Keener said more must be done.

The department will in the coming days propose a series of specific service suspensions meant to “right-size” the network while staffing remains too low to sustain existing operations. They will be on top of six “commuter” routes the city already halted last month.

“We’ll essentially be proposing about a 700-vehicle-hour per week suspension, and that will be determined by both our ridership numbers and results of our ongoing network study,” Keener said.

She said the department plans to put its proposal online later this week, opening it up for public comment. The suspensions would go to the City Council and through a federally mandated equity analysis, she said.

The potential changes come amid another big decision about the future of the city’s bus service; the City Council is presently weighing whether to replace the current “zero fare” pilot – which permits anyone to board a bus without money or any identification – with a pass-based model that allows free trips only to those who have a city-issued pass or certain forms of ID. The council is scheduled to vote on that legislation next month.

Zero fares have contributed to some personnel losses, as nine bus drivers who quit this year cited the program, a Transit Department spokeswoman said.

However, leaders on Tuesday cited other factors for the shortage, including an aging workforce and hot labor market where drivers are in high demand – challenges Keener said are playing out at transit agencies across the country.

To adapt, the city recently boosted wages for its early-career drivers. Starting pay for bus drivers is now $17.65 per hour – a 14% hike – and it rises to $19.59 after a six-month probation. Pay for SunVan drivers also increased. Keener said applications have begun arriving at a faster clip.

Elsewhere in the department, contract labor will be used to bolster maintenance manpower, and the city is launching a mentorship program that will allow Central New Mexico Community College automotive students to shadow city mechanics.

“We continue to look for innovative ways to hire and retain employees,” Keener said.

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