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GRTC still 30 employees short of full strength as bus service cuts officially go into effect

GRTC still 30 employees short of full strength as bus service cuts officially go into effect

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RTD - A1 Dec. 21, 2021

GRTC buses will run less frequently on several major routes for weeks to come due to an ongoing driver shortage.

As the regional transit company continues to focus on hiring more drivers, GRTC implemented service cuts Sunday on more than a dozen routes. The cuts come after months of service issues, including significant delays and routes that are out of operation.

Data from the company shows that about 15% of all scheduled bus trips failed to appear on time each month since November last year, which is 6 percentage points higher than GRTC’s monthly target. Around 4% of all scheduled bus trips have been canceled each month as well.

“I’ve told folks around here that it’s usually darkest before the dawn — you know we’ve had some dark days here over the last [few months],” GRTC Operations Director Tim Barham said in a board meeting Tuesday morning. “We should see those numbers drop because our goal is zero missed trips. ... So we’re going to get there one way or another.”

It’s unclear how long the service reductions will remain, but about 20 new drivers will soon be trained, and schedules for high-traffic bus lines, such as the Pulse and Route 5, may gradually return to their previous timetables throughout the winter, according to the transit company.

GRTC required around 300 bus drivers prior to the pandemic to operate all of its routes efficiently. Barham said Tuesday there are currently 268 drivers, 23 of whom are part time. He said nine prospective drivers-in-training are on track to graduate next month.

Officials this fall anticipated that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate could result in turnover. As litigation challenging a federal vaccine order continues, however, GRTC has moved to a Feb. 9 deadline for the 7% of its employees who remain unvaccinated or have not yet submitted records of their shot.

GRTC is offering a $5,000 signing bonus for new drivers. The bonus, however, is awarded over the course of a year. The transit company is also offering $8,500 bonuses for new mechanics, paid out over two years.

GRTC officials have also approved the use of $5 million from a pot of federal COVID-19 relief aid for retention bonuses, but has not started awarding it to employees.

Maurice Carter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 1220, which represents GRTC bus drivers and other system employees, said retention could improve if the company begins awarding those bonuses sooner.

GRTC spokeswoman Carrie Rose Pace said the timing of those bonuses has not been publicly announced, but officials anticipate the bonuses will be awarded sometime in early- to mid-2022.

GRTC has received approximately $66 million in federal aid since the start of the pandemic. Rose Pace said $18.6 million of it remains unallocated.

In order to help riders impacted by the service cuts, GRTC has launched a pilot program where people can order free on-demand transit service Monday through Friday from 5 to 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. The schedule excludes observed holidays where GRTC operates on a weekend schedule.

The pilot program, arranged through a partnership with Uber and UZURV, allows riders to call for the free service once per day. It only works between GRTC bus stops.

Carter said ATU 1220 still has objections to the pilot after raising concerns about outsourcing work to outside contractors. Members have also raised concerns about possible shortfalls of the on-demand service, such as the availability of drivers during the applicable hours and their ability to cancel rides.

“I think [the usefulness of] that service will speak for itself,” Carter said.

Breanne Armbrust, executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton, said she expects that the bus service cuts will have negative consequences for people who rely on public transit, and she fears that the stopgap pilot may not be sufficient.

Armbrust said riders she spoke with Monday told her they were unaware of the scheduled changes and waited upward of an hour for a bus on the 4A or 4B line.

She said the service reduction on those routes, which GRTC scaled back a few years ago, is likely to disadvantage neighborhood residents, particularly those who rely on public transit to get to work and do not have cell phones with data plans.

“It’s already an inaccessible system that I think was made more inaccessible by these changes,” Armbrust said. “I think they should not be creating significant changes to the public transit system without notice, so that people are able to anticipate and adjust for their lives.”

“There needs to be better communication — and not just over social media,” she added.


In other business Tuesday, GRTC Chief Executive Julie Timm announced that the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation has awarded the transit company $8 million to help GRTC continue its zero-fare policy through June 30, 2025.

GRTC moved to a fare-free model at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 as a health safety measure, letting passengers board without interacting with fareboxes or ticket vending machines.

Transit officials say the policy is also intended to benefit low-income passengers. About half of riders make less than $25,000 annually, according to the company.

A GRTC news release Tuesday highlighted that local route ridership last month exceeded the count for November 2019 by 10%, marking a significant increase over pre-pandemic trends. GRTC noted that a recent industry study cited the fare-free policy and a 2018 bus network redesign as two key factors for the system’s recovery and growth amid the pandemic.

Timm said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and officials with Virginia Commonwealth University have pledged funding to help continue the policy, but that GRTC will continue seeking support from other institutions and businesses to help cover the $20.4 million needed to maintain free bus service over the next three years.

Rose Pace said GRTC would need $6.8 million in annual subsidies to maintain zero-fare once the state grant runs out.

Timm said the additional time for the policy will allow for transit and local government officials to study its effectiveness and whether it should be sustained beyond 2025.

“While I hesitate to draw any final conclusions on the long-term implications of fare collections ... I will say for now that it’s indisputable that GRTC is providing an essential mobility service,” Timm said.

“We’re breaking down the barriers to access resources, directly benefiting essential workers and our most economically vulnerable members of our local communities through these ongoing zero-fare operations.”


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