Portland’s public transit agency, TriMet, is in need of more drivers. The agency is currently facing a historic low of people who can go behind the wheel. In fact, starting mid-September Portlanders will see the agency scale back services for 10 of its bus lines. JC Vannatta is the executive director of public affairs at TriMet. He joins us to share how this staffing issue is affecting the agency and their plans to bring in new applicants.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: We turn now to the latest challenges for Oregon’s largest public transit agency. TriMet desperately needs more drivers, and it’s working quickly to hire and train more people to put behind the wheel. But in the meantime, the shortages leading to service reductions: in mid-September, 10 bus lines will have cuts of varying levels. JC Vannatta is the executive director of public affairs at TriMet. He joins us to talk about the agency’s plans going forward. JC, welcome back.
JC Vannatta: Thank you so much for having me on.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for how severe the current driver shortage is?
Vannatta: It is severe. It’s a historic labor shortage for TriMet and I just want to take a second to thank our riders in the community for their patience as we’re working this problem, quite literally. We’re down about 350 operators and we have pulled out all the stops, and for the past year it’s been our priority to hire bus drivers. We’ve instituted a $7500 hiring bonus. We have increased our starting salary to $24-$25. So I would just note if any of your listeners have family or friends who want a good paying job, to please sign up at TriMet. But it is working, we’ve hired 140 people, and I would also just note that all of our training classes are full. So if we keep this clip, we should be able to begin restoring service by sometime next year.
Miller: When you say you are down 350 drivers, you mean that there are 350 fewer drivers than there were, say, in January of 2020?
Vannatta: I would say we’re down roughly that number from what we need. And if you remember, we actually were on the precipice of one of the agency’s largest expansions in our history. And so that’s the number of drivers we need to fulfill the service that we once had.
Miller: But is that at this point the right metric? My understanding is that 2.5 years after the start of the pandemic, you’re only at 60% of pre-pandemic ridership levels. So at this point, does it seem like you’re seeing a fundamental change in the number of people who are going to regularly ride buses or ride the Max train anyway?
Vannatta: That’s a very good question. And I would say that when we started the pandemic, obviously ridership dropped. We were at 60-70% below where we were at because [of] the stay at home order and such. But we have seen as offices have begun to return people, as people got more comfortable in going out, ridership is coming back. And it’s been gradual, it’s been consistent, but we are seeing people coming back. And in fact in April and May of this year, we saw over our average weekly trips, top one million for the first time since March 2020. So while our ridership is up more than 28% compared to last year, we’re still down, but we expect it to come back. And I would also just note we have this huge effort underway right now. It’s a comprehensive service analysis, what we call Forward Together. And quite literally, we have been studying, analyzing the changes in demographics, the changes where people have moved to, and are putting together a much bigger plan to when we get there. We are able to refocus and deploy our service in a new fashion, and that’s really what we’re working for, and we’re working towards, because we know that people are not only looking for a new service but an expanded service level.
Miller: So you’re not concerned, for example, that enough people are going to be doing remote work, that they’re just that they’re no longer going to be writers, you’re still assuming that ridership is gonna go fully back to where it was 2.5 years ago?
Vannatta: I would say we were accounting for people tele-working and we are accounting for people returning back to the office, but we’re also accounting for a lot of companies bringing folks back. And I would also say it’s going to be over several years. We don’t anticipate it coming back tomorrow or next year, but we do anticipate a gradual growth in ridership to bring us back to where we were pre-pandemic.
Miller: Obviously people have been leaving their jobs in many sectors all across the country. That’s why the phrase ‘the great resignation’ came to be, but what do you see as the specific reasons that people are quitting or retiring from their jobs at TriMet?
Vannatta: That’s a good question. I think it’s all over the map. I think it’s much of what you said, we’ve also experienced a large number of retirements as well. Also some people have also moved up in the company. So they may have gone. Our bus operator pool is where we draw a lot of our other positions from, whether a supervisor or station agent. So there are a number of reasons why people have moved out of a position of becoming a bus operator.
Miller: I’m assuming that the majority of people who are no longer bus operators haven’t moved up, right?
Vannatta: I wouldn’t know that statistic right now. I do know that a lot of people have left TriMet, whether it’s retirement or they moved on to other jobs.
Miller: Hiring and training new bus drivers seems like way more work than retaining your current ones. What are you doing to try to encourage people to stay in their jobs?
Vannatta: We have, over the course of the past year, there have been some hiring bonuses that we have done. Not hiring bonuses, almost retention, just to keep people where they’re at. We also just approved a new rollover contract with RATU that provides for increases in their salaries for this upcoming year. The new contract starts December one.
Miller: Just to be clear, that’s the operators union, the driver’s union.
Vannatta: Yeah. It’s for all of our unionized employees of TriMet in 18757. And so it’s a two-year contract and it provides for an increase in wages for both years.
Miller: What about improving the experience of drivers who have complained about all kinds of things, including fears that they could be assaulted by riders.
Vannatta: That’s definitely a concern, and one that we are tracking and monitoring closely and we are doing everything we can to improve. The safety and security of our system is paramount right now. As you can imagine, the crime that we see in our community, you will also sometimes see on TriMet. We equate ourselves to a moving sidewalk if you will. And so the crime that you might see on on a community sidewalk, you might see on TriMet, and I would say that we are working diligently to hire up to fulfill our police, our transit police ranks, but then also our our customers safety officers, and other non-armed security officers on our system. And as you can imagine the hiring shortfalls that we’ve all experienced have affected our safety and security as well. And we are working diligently to fulfill those ranks and we’re doing a good job. We’re starting to see an increase in numbers all around as we look to once again move us to a place where we are fully staffed on our safety and security side.
Miller: So speaking of this, the Portland Mercury recently reported on an internal memo that was sent to employees that trim it. It was focused on the use of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid on buses. What exactly prompted that memo?
Vannatta: Well, as you can imagine, we have seen an increased use of people smoking various drugs on our system, whether they’re at the bus station, or on board our max trains. And the memo really went out to help educate our employees on what to do, what we’re seeing, how we’re dealing with it. And I think that was incredibly important. It was that internal communication just meant to educate people, because we have seen it. And that also has prompted more of our security efforts in dealing with it. So it really was meant to show how we’re dealing with the situation on a number of different fronts.
Miller: Well it’s specifically said there’s going to be an increase in transit police enforcement missions. What does that mean in practice?
Vannatta: So the article was a little bit misleading. We aren’t increasing our overall transit police numbers when it comes to the number of positions that we have. I would say we actually – as the entire region has – had a hard time in attracting police officers. We much have experienced the same thing And so we have roughly about 65 positions that we can hire for. That’s what we’re really trying to do is to fulfill all 65 positions and get them filled. That’s what we are doing. We’re not increasing the overall number of police positions. Does that make sense?
Miller: It does. But just to defend the Portland Mercury’s framing of this, their headline is trying to increase police presence on public transit. The first line is that there’s plans to increase transit police on and around the transit system. It seems like that’s exactly what you’re saying.
Vannatta: Yes, that is correct.
Miller: Okay, let’s turn to the actual cuts in service that are going to be happening about a month from now because as you noted, even though you’re working hard to bring more drivers online that takes time. But you have the shortage right now. How did you decide which bus lines to reduce service on?
Vannatta: Well, a lot of them had to do with low ridership. And I think that that has been the big piece that we really looked at. While we are reducing service or canceling lines on too low ridership lines, we’re also increasing extra trips that we’re adding to others where we are seeing overcrowding. So there are more tweaks that we’re doing with our service as well as making sure that we can deliver the service in a reliable fashion for our riders.
Miller: How worried are you about a kind of feedback loop, where if you cut services in places that currently have low ridership, you could just depress ridership going forward there even more because people are going to get the message that they can’t rely on that service, it’s not frequent enough for them to plan their lives, their personal or their work lives around that bus?
Vannatta: And that’s a very real concern, Dave. I would say that that’s something that we carefully consider as we look at making these cuts or changes to our service. And I think that when we look forward and as we’re performing this analysis on our system, it really is looking at where we can build ridership in the future. Some of these lines we’ve seen changes to where people are living, some lines no longer have the ridership because companies have closed or people have moved. And so I think that one of the things that we have learned through this pandemic and with this shift, is that our service and our service levels have needed to change with it. So while we might be tweaking service and are changing it, I think we have our eye on the future and how we can look at growing ridership by providing the service that people really are looking for and really need.
Miller: JC Vannatta. Thanks very much for joining us.
Vannatta: Thank you so much.
Miller: JC Vannatta is the executive director of public affairs at TriMet.
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