(June 14, 2019) Increasing driver wages and acquiring additional articulating buses were two points the Transportation Committee deemed worthy of further attention during a discussion about bus service this week.
Transit Manager Mark Rickards began the conversation Tuesday with a review of early season bus ridership numbers, which he said despite a one percent dip, are essentially mirroring last year.
“We could look at what we did last year and expect to do the same thing this year, with weather being the biggest variable,” he said.
Rickards also noted arrival times have not topped 10 minutes since in-season bus service began on Memorial Day Weekend
“We’re consistently serving our stops and passengers,” he said. “They see a bus every 10 minutes or less.”
Transit Operations Manager Steve Bartlett said the bigger challenge surrounds scheduling.
“Attendance is the biggest problem,” he said.
Bartlett said for the dozen-plus years he has overseen transit operations, the seasonal staff has been comprised largely of retirees, who are highly reliable, but only to a point.
“They spent their entire careers missing birthdays [and] cookouts,” he said. “When they decide that they’re not coming in … they don’t come in.”
Noting some years prove more challenging, Bartlett said 2019 is off to an inauspicious beginning.
“Before we even got into Springfest, I had 15 requests for days off going all the way up to September,” he said.
Past attempts to rein in the number of days missed during the season have proven futile, Bartlett said.
“I can deny the requests to take off but they don’t show up anyway,” he said. “Luckily we have a lot of staff that will step up and we’re covering the bases.”
Highlighting this year’s seasonal numbers, Bartlett said at this point 108 drivers are on staff, with an influx of about a half dozen more anticipated with the end of school this week.
“I have been looking for this season for 129,” he said.
Although the summer is just underway, Public Works Director Hal Adkins said additional staff is being sought.
“We didn’t stop recruiting,” he said.
Mayor Rick Meehan suggested new angles might be required to lure seasonal drivers.
“It just shows we need to look at other ways to attract drivers,” he said.
Bartlett said he worked closely with Human Resources Director Wayne Evans to explore fresh avenues for staff recruitment this season.
“We pulled out all the stops,” he said. “We did stuff this year that we’ve never done before.”
In addition to having a presence at several previously untested job fairs, transportation department seasonal positions were advertised on different online job platforms, most notable “indeed.”
“For the first time ever … we paid for learners permits and driving records for people that were in need,” he said. “I don’t know where else we can look to try and recruit.”
Highlighting Bartlett’s desire to hire 129 bus drivers, Councilman Tony DeLuca said the staffing numbers have been trending down for the past three years.
“If you look at 2017 we’re continually going down,” he said. “The goal was 150-155 in 2017 and this year was 129, but [right] now we’re at 108.”
DeLuca also confirmed with Rickards that unforeseen absences are covered by other staff working overtime hours.
“That is what happens when you don’t have enough people,” he said.
Noting that special focus was paid to driver recruitment in 2017, DeLuca suggested revamping methodology.
“All the metrics in town are positive… weather has been phenomenal and buses are down,” he said.
Bartlett said in 2017 the CDL training class for seasonal bus drivers topped 50 participants.
“That was the largest class we’ve ever done,” he said.
In 2018 that figure dropped in half to 25, which was reduced further this year, Bartlett said.
“We need to figure out where else this workforce is coming from,” he said.
Budget Manager Jennie Knapp asked how many of 2017’s bumper crop of CDL trainees are still employed with the department.
“Probably half are still here,” Bartlett said. “The majority left for full-time … benefitted employment. I’ve got half a dozen doing over the road trucking.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said a roughly one percent drop in ridership does not necessarily reflect poorly on the home team.
“It just suggests to me there’s less people out there riding the bus,” he said.
Dare also said ridership challenges are part of the transportation trend nationally, principally due to the advent and burgeoning popularity of ride share services.
“If you’re meeting the schedule, having twice as many drivers as you need isn’t going to increase the ridership,” he said.
Touching on concerns voiced initially by DeLuca about over-crowded buses being forced to pass up passengers, Dare suggested acquiring additional 60-foot articulating buses.
Bartlett said the pair of articulating buses the city currently owns has proven their worth.
“It’s a phenomenal piece of equipment that works well ... it’s two buses,” he said.
Adkins said he has previously suggested having a half-dozen of the larger buses.
Dare said to acquire new units by next season, which tally around $750,000 each, the process would need to get underway in short order.
Knapp said the upcoming fiscal 2021 Maryland Mass Transit Authority Grant agreement is due next March.
Rickards said if that funding source is denied, other federal grant opportunities might be available.
Turning to wages, Dare said higher pay might equate to a higher caliber of employee.
“If you want to attract more people, and you want them not to call in sick, you’ve got to make it attractive,” he said. “They’re worth that to the operations.”
Meehan said the proposed pay raise should be contingent on performance.
“When they call in and don’t work when they’re scheduled, they’re gone,” he said. “Right now, we’re not able to do that.”
Meehan suggested the committee resume the conversation in a few months after compiling salary recommendations and analyzing current overtime costs.
Knapp raised the specter of pending updates to the city’s various pay tables in light of increased minimum wage rates in Maryland.
Dare made a motion, which was approved by voting members Meehan and DeLuca, to provide updates on funding efforts to purchase more articulating buses at the next Transportation Committee meeting.
Dare also said a cost analysis is required to determine the bottom line benefit of boosting driver pay scales.
Meehan said with the upcoming changes to state minimum wage rates, the fiscal data would take several months to compile.
“We need to know if the trends in public transportation in other areas are going up or down,” he said.
Dare made an additional motion, also unanimously approved, to have Evans begin researching driver salaries.
Meehan said regardless of future steps the goal should be more reliable staffing.
“We need to get in an equity position where you’re in control of that schedule,” he said.