Editorial: Metro is shorting out Los Angeles passengers and bus drivers
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan to turn the region’s beleaguered buses into a “world-class system” with frequent, reliable service has been hampered by one big problem: a crippling shortage of bus drivers.
Metro is losing bus drivers faster than it can hire them. Retirements and resignations, a hiring freeze during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a miserably low starting salary have all resulted in a driver shortage so severe the agency had to cut service by 12% earlier. this year because there were not enough operators to run the buses. according to reliable schedules. Metro currently has 3,300 drivers and needs to hire 600 more to get back to pre-COVID-19 staffing levels.
Metro isn’t the only agency scrambling to hire bus drivers. It’s a national problem fueled by a tight labor market and demand for commercial drivers; workers can earn more and have more flexibility driving for delivery services.
But the shortage of bus drivers in Los Angeles has undermined the implementation of Metro’s NextGen bus system, which was the network’s first overhaul in 25 years. NextGen has created a series of schedule and route changes that are supposed to result in fast, frequent and reliable service, providing 80% of current bus riders with a bus arrival frequency of 10 minutes or more.
It was also meant to address historic inequities in transit service by providing communities of color and communities with high needs with better transportation options to jobs, hospitals and colleges, according to a TransitCenter analysis for the purpose of non-profit. Instead, the disruption caused by the shortage of bus operators has left riders with far worse service than they were promised. Indeed, bus service is at its lowest since the 1990s, according to data from advocacy group Investing in Place.
And while the pandemic has made the shortage of bus drivers worse, it was a problem even before 2020 due to harsh working conditions and shockingly low starting pay. As recently as the start of the year, newly hired bus drivers were being paid $17.75 an hour. After six months, their wages increased by $2 an hour. In April, Metro temporarily increased the starting wage to $20.49 per hour; drivers initially work part-time after training, and their wages increase to $21.84 per hour when they go full-time.
While full-time veteran bus drivers can earn more than $100,000 a year, new drivers’ wages are so low that they would qualify for low-income housing. It’s no wonder Metro is struggling to hire and retain workers. More than half of bus drivers surveyed said they were inclined to leave the metro, citing low pay and high stress related to safety concerns as well as a lack of breaks and toilets on their routes as the main reasons. .
Metro cannot restore or improve bus service until the agency hires and trains more drivers. The agency has stepped up hiring and training, aiming to have enough drivers to return to pre-pandemic bus service levels by the end of September, chief executive Stephanie Wiggins said. He is negotiating a new contract with the union representing bus operators, although officials declined to talk about offers to help with recruitment.
The shortage of bus drivers is not the only source of concern, however. The NextGen plan adopted by Metro’s board of directors in January 2020 called for the agency to spend $1 billion over five years to improve bus reliability, speed and comfort. This was supposed to include dedicated bus lanes, synchronized traffic lights and other improvements, such as shelters at busy stops.
But now the agency has cut the amount it plans to spend on bus infrastructure to just $350 million. Wiggins said the agency could achieve the same results with less money. But there are good reasons to be skeptical about the agency’s motivation. Buses carry two-thirds of the system’s passengers, but buses have been an afterthought to major highway and railroad construction projects. NextGen was supposed to bring a boom in building bus infrastructure, including dedicated lanes that are crucial for faster service on congested city streets. But bus lanes are controversial (motorists don’t want to waste street space) and expensive, and now the agency is reconsidering the extent of its bus lane network.
Runners shouldn’t have to settle for less. Metro and the political leaders overseeing the agency — including the mayor of LA — shouldn’t back down from the ambitious plans behind NextGen, no matter the challenges.