LAWRENCE — The MBTA is in crisis, shutting down an entire subway line for much-needed repairs and slashing subway and bus service. Transit agencies across the country say they’re struggling with shortages of drivers.
But in Lawrence, where riders are already enjoying free service, the bus system is about to get a whole lot more convenient.
Starting this week, the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority will increase bus frequency throughout the day for the first time in its history, ensuring riders on Lawrence-based routes do not wait more than 30 minutes for a bus.
The agency, which serves 14 communities, has managed to boost service by doing what the much larger Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has so far found impossible: hire enough drivers. As bus service in Lawrence improves starting Sept. 6, MBTA riders in Greater Boston are now enduring longer wait times on 43 bus routes following earlier cuts to bus service the MBTA made in December.
The service boost follows an even bolder undertaking from the authority: in March it made all buses free to ride for two years, using COVID-19 funds from the federal government to pay for the experiment.
The Merrimack Valley authority’s success is the result of changes big and small to the bus driver job to make it more attractive, including a higher starting wage and targeted recruitment campaign, said administrator Noah Berger. The authority has even lured a few former MBTA employees, who are now undergoing driver training, he said.
Like the free-fare program, it’s not clear how long the service improvements will last once the federal funding propping them up runs out in the next few years. Like the MBTA, the MVRTA will soon face a large gap in its operating budget.
In the meantime, Berger said he hopes to “demonstrate what a robust, truly reliable transit system can do.”
“When we are going to make the case for more funds, which we are going to have to do no matter what, I want to make the case for what transit looks like when it’s running at its best,” Berger said.
To be sure, the MBTA is much, much larger, with around 6,000 employees; the MVRTA has around 135 employees. The MBTA is in charge of buses, vans, trains, subways, and ferries, while the MVRTA is in charge of just buses and vans.
But so far, the T hasn’t tried many of the recruitment strategies for bus drivers that have proved successful in Lawrence. Despite what the T describes as an aggressive hiring campaign for bus drivers since December, with $4,500 hiring bonuses and $10,000 tuition reimbursement, the agency is still 300 drivers short, according to the news release last month announcing the most recent service cuts.
The MVRTA redoubled its hiring efforts over the summer, Berger said. The agency raised its starting wage to around $25 per hour, with more available depending on driving credentials, and began offering a top wage of $27.61 per hour drivers can reach after just one year.
Drivers starting out at the T make far less and may face a higher cost of living if they live closer to Boston.
The MBTA pays drivers $16.66 per hour for the first eight weeks on the job at 40 hours per week during training, and then $22.21 per hour at just 30 hours per week after that. The MBTA is one of only three Massachusetts transit authorities out of 15 surveyed earlier this year that make new hires start as part time, according to a survey provided by MassDOT. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the T has shortened the time it takes to become full time from 5-6 months to 3-4 months.
The starting salary is what drew Benjamin Medina to the job at the Merrimack Valley authority. He was working as a van driver for a day-care center for the elderly making $18 per hour when the company closed, he said. His supervisor there sent him a photo of the back of an MVRTA bus.
“NOW HIRING BUS & VAN DRIVERS,” the ads say in bright orange letters against a neon green background. “UP TO $27 AN HR! FULL TIME | GREAT BENEFITS.”
Medina, 46, is from Lawrence, and helps support three kids. The higher wage has allowed him to start saving for retirement, he said.
“It’s a new beginning,” he said. “It’s a good environment to work in.”
Other changes are meant to keep bus drivers from leaving. The authority adjusted several routes after hearing feedback from drivers about complicated turns and intersections. English fluency is no longer an application requirement, Berger said, given that many people speak English well enough to do the job, but don’t regard themselves as fluent. There were small things, too: a new coffee machine and massage chair in the break room.
Then there’s the fact buses in Lawrence are free to ride.
Two veteran bus drivers who spoke to The Boston Globe said they are grateful to no longer have to police passengers who don’t have enough money. The agency had charged between $1.00 and $1.25 per bus ride. Complaints from riders decreased around 31 percent from February to June, Berger said.
The MVRTA added eight bus drivers over the summer, bringing the total to 79 starting in September, which is the most drivers the agency has ever had, Berger said. There are 13 routes based in Lawrence, six in Haverhill, and three out of Amesbury.
Morale, the two veteran bus drivers said, has never been better.
“I plan that this will be my career,” said Jason Durso, who has been driving for the MVRTA for five years.
Since the MVRTA eliminated fares in March, ridership has soared. In June, bus ridership was around 71 percent higher — at 126,343 riders — than in February, and paratransit ridership was around 28 percent higher, Berger said. He expects ridership will increase further after service improves.
On a recent morning, Nilka Brito, 48, was waiting for a bus to take home at the Buckley Transportation Center in Lawrence after dropping her daughter off at high school. The boost in service means Brito should wait at most 30 minutes, instead of one hour, for her bus, which she expects will translate into more time to run errands and take care of her other children.
“For me, it’s excellent,” she said in Spanish. “We’ve needed this service for a long time.”
Further increases to bus frequency, Berger said, would require more buses and expanded bus garages, exceeding the limits of the pandemic relief funds.
But he’s already eyeing another improvement within the agency’s current means: later service hours. Lawrence-based buses currently stop running at 7 p.m. on weekdays.
“We’ll make sure we put out things we can sustain, but our goal is to meet the needs of our cities and towns,” he said. “I don’t want us to be so cautious that we aren’t doing our core mission: provide adequate service across the Merrimack Valley.”