It was two days after Christmas when a Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority bus driver got the bad news in the midst of driving his route between Andover and Lawrence: he had tested positive for COVID-19.
The driver ended the trip and headed back to the bus yard, where another driver working overtime picked up the next trip. He was one of seven drivers and one supervisor who were out because of COVID-19 infection last week, according to transit authority administrator Noah Berger.
Amid a record number of COVID-19 cases in the state, some transportation agencies across Massachusetts are juggling the shortage of healthy workers with trying to deliver reliable service to riders who depend on public transit. On Tuesday, early morning trips on two of the MVRTA’s buses were dropped, a log of dropped trips provided by Berger showed. The reason listed: “LACK OF MANPOWER.”
“Long term it’s going to be challenging,” said Berger. “People burn out, it’s asking a lot. Folks have really risen to the challenge.”
The challenge is made more acute for Massachusetts transit agencies that were already facing severe staffing shortages before the Omicron variant began to take hold in mid-December. Though some agencies, like the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, say they are are largely unaffected by the surge in cases, some, like the MVRTA, are having to leave riders waiting longer for the bus.
So far, the state’s largest transit agency, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, has avoided the large-scale cuts to scheduled service endured by similar agencies in other states due to Omicron. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City suspended service on three subway lines this week. Metro in Washington, D.C., will reduce weekday bus service to Saturday levels starting Monday.
MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said as of Wednesday there are 54 agency employees who currently have COVID-19, out of a workforce of around 6,300, and 21 of those infected are bus or subway operators.
In early December, before the most recent surge, the MBTA announced bus service cuts because of a driver shortage. At the time, Pesaturo said the agency was about 300 bus drivers short of being able to provide its pre-pandemic service levels. Since then, the agency and the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589 agreed to provide hiring bonuses in hopes of attracting more drivers.
Next week the MBTA plans to reopen a testing site at its maintenance facility in Everett that it shuttered in early December because of a lack of demand, Pesaturo said. Testing is key to keeping drivers on the job, said Jim Evers, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589.
“We’re seeing a lot of our members saying, ‘I was exposed,’ and the clinics are saying they have to wait at least a week for a test. That’s no good,” he said. “Having this testing is ideal.”
People who drive around Boston appear to be staying off the roads during the surge, which also happens to have begun over the winter holiday season. According to a spokesperson for INRIX, a transportation data firm, weekday travel speeds in Suffolk County during the evening peak period of 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on highways and expressways were 16 percent faster from Dec. 19 to Jan. 5 compared to Dec. 1 to Dec. 18, indicating fewer cars on the road and less congestion. Average travel speeds went from 19.8 miles per hour during the first time period to 23.0 miles per hour since Dec. 19.
Spokesperson for MassDOT Jacquelyn Goddard said the agency has “no widespread staff outages at this time.” Spokesperson for Massport Jennifer Mehigan said the agency has seen an uptick in employees out due to COVID-19, but does not expect an impact on its services.
The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority has so far been spared during the surge, said administrator Tom Cahir. Recently two people among the administration staff tested positive, Cahir said, but there has not been an uptick in cases among the agency’s around 140 drivers.
“This week there are no new incidents of drivers different than before,” he said. “We are continuing to head in the right direction and we can get through this quickly.”
Cape Cod hasn’t had to reduce any bus service during the pandemic, Cahir said, a success he credits to increasing starting pay for bus drivers to around $20 per hour. He said ridership is back to more than 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said.
Lowell Regional Transit Authority administrator David Bradley said the agency has been fortunate, too, with only a slight uptick in driver absences due to COVID-19. The agency had to reduce bus service starting on Jan. 3 due to a shortage of drivers unrelated to the surge. So far, it hasn’t had to cancel any trips due to COVID absences, Bradley said.
“We are not oblivious that we are in the middle of a surge,” he said. “We continue to work with the drivers and make sure we are providing them with the appropriate [personal protective equipment] and disinfectants. . . . It’s a day to day thing.”