Those who depend on city buses for their transportation needs got an early lump of coal this week.
Rather, they got the confirmation of something they probably already knew — bus routes are shrinking like stockpiles of Christmas candy after the presents are unwrapped.
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. If you’re one of those stranded passengers, you didn’t need to hear this news from official channels.
The big takeaway is that a shortage of employees is forcing transit officials to “right size,” or reduce, scheduled service levels. Even with ridership at only 80% of what it was before the pandemic, the transit department can’t hire enough workers to cover current demand.
It’s easy to grumble about this development. But, considering that ridership is currently free, a couple of thoughts come to mind: “You get what you pay for” and “you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.”
ABQ RIDE’s leadership provided an update Tuesday 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.
To the transit department’s credit, it’s tried an all-hands-on-deck approach to keeping a normal route schedule. Drivers have been called in on their days off and supervisors have gotten behind the wheel to cover routes. The department finally cried uncle and admitted it has to scale back until it can get more fully staffed.
As aggravating as this is to bus riders, ABQ Ride’s acknowledgement that it hasn’t been reliable at least gives hope for improvement. Passengers’ frustrations and concerns are being addressed instead of ignored. There should be more consistency to whatever routes remain in play. And there are long-range efforts underway to increase capacity. Staffing shortages mean the ABQ RIDE system has been failing to provide about 500 hours of what should be 7,100 hours per week of service. Now, the department is proposing a reduction of roughly 700 vehicle-hours. They will be on top of six “commuter” routes the city halted last month.
In coming days, the department is supposed to propose a series of specific service suspensions, based on ridership numbers and an ongoing network study. The proposal will be put online and open to public comment.
The suspensions would go to the City Council and through a federally mandated equity analysis, according to transit officials.
Meanwhile, the department recently added a feature to its smartphone app that lets passengers see cancellations in real time. And it’s trying to entice more drivers to join its ranks.
Starting pay for bus drivers is now $17.65 per hour — a 14% hike — and the salary rises to $19.59 after a six-month probation. Pay for SunVan drivers also increased.
A big factor looms in the future of the city’s bus system. The City Council is currently weighing whether to replace the current “zero fare” pilot — which permits anyone to board a bus without money or identification — with a pass-based model that allows free trips to those with 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 and concerns over safety, a Transit Department spokeswoman said.
But advocates for zero fares insist no-barrier access to public transportation is a linchpin to equity. It’s a ticklish situation for council members trying to balance public safety and the needs of a sizable population of city residents who have no other way to get to jobs, medical appointments, grocery stores and social services.
The outcome of the zero fares debate will ultimately drive other decisions affecting ridership, staffing and routes. Until then, it’s prudent for the city to halt unreliable service and focus on doing the most it can with its available staffing.
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.