NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — DeAnn Troen of Portsmouth waited for her Route 47 bus on a recent Thursday morning. She says her bus rides have been going downhill for the past several months.
“(I’m seeing) lesser and lesser good customer service, the bus runs have been canceled, and the drivers don’t seem to be as concerned.”
“That’s one of the biggest complaints about transit,” said Tom Holden, spokesman for Hampton Roads Transit. “Where’s my darn bus?”
Holden says HRT has almost 50,000 boardings daily, and from July 2018 to August of this year, HRT completed 912,101 trips successfully. However, it had 18,653 missed trips, any portion of inbound or outbound trip that wasn’t completed. That’s a failure rate of just over 2.5%.
“The 2% is 2% too high. The goal is always zero,” Holden said.
HRT and the Amalgamated Transit Union that represents bus drivers agree on one major cause. There’s not enough drivers to sit behind the wheel, and according to data we obtained from HRT, that led to nearly half of the missed trips.
HRT and the union agree that more drivers are needed. Qualified applicants must be able to pass a criminal background check, a drug screen and have a valid Commercial Driver’s License.
“A big problem is the pay,” said Amanda Sawyer, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1177.
“You can start with a large pool (of applicants), and by the time you get to graduation, there’s 10 people there,” Holden said.
Starting HRT drivers make about $14.75 an hour. The union says that’s about 20% less than rookie drivers in Richmond. The pay is one thing, but the schedule is another.
“They come in the door working mandatory overtime,” Sawyer said, “and a lot of them get distracted when they find out they have to work six days a week, up to 14 hours a day because they can’t spend time with their families.”
“We haven’t seen evidence of (distracted drivers). What we do see evidence of is that some of the drivers can be under stress. They can be under stress when they’re asked to work a lot,” Holden said.
HRT is reaching out with public service announcements to get more drivers behind the wheel, and partnering with Tidewater Community College and Norfolk Works to help applicants get their CDL.
“Just this summer, we graduated our first nine and so they’re now driving for us,” Holden said.
Staffing, retention and pay are all hills to climb. But so is funding. HRT has separate service contracts with each of the six cities it serves.
Holden says the best way for riders to increase service in their particular city is to urge their city council to find additional dollars. “We can only provide the service that we’re funded to provide.”
Meanwhile Troen has made her complaints known on their customer service line.
“We hear from them. We know that that happens,” Holden said.
Well maybe not always. The 47 bus changed its schedule at the last minute, leaving Troen to scramble and change her schedule, too. She called the customer service line, and after making her way through three voice prompts and waiting for several minutes, “They hung up on me. That happens a lot.”
“We certainly apologize to anybody who missed the trip,” Holden said. “It’s not the situation we want.”
HRT says it will have a next-bus-arrival app coming next year. It will enable riders to track the location of the next bus so they won’t have to wait as long.