The MBTA’s acute shortage of bus drivers has forced the agency to cut service and cancel trips. It has tried to fix its staffing troubles with hiring bonuses, training for the commercial driver’s license, and tuition reimbursement, but none of the perks so far has solved the problem.
On Thursday, general manager Phillip Eng announced the elimination of a probationary-like period that critics say contributed to the shortages; instead of working part time for the first months of their employment, newly hired bus drivers will be offered full-time positions immediately.
The change brings the T in line with large transit agencies, including MTA in New York City, NJ Transit in New Jersey, Metro in Los Angeles, WMATA in Washington, CTA in Chicago, and SEPTA in Philadelphia, that hire bus drivers into full-time positions.
“That is an important roadblock that we have eliminated and moving forward, we envision that will help us greatly accelerate the hiring of bus operators,” Eng said during a meeting of the agency’s board of directors.
The shift is the result of an agreement between the T and the Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589, he said. Previously, new drivers were limited to working 30 hours per week and had to wait three to six months before they could move into full-time positions, the MBTA has said.
In a statement, the union said the full-time work opportunity is optional, and bus drivers will be permitted to work part time if they wish. The option will “benefit riders, community, and will improve worker retention,” the union said.
“It’s a great way to get more workers in the door, and it does reflect a new approach from a new administration that is showing it values frontline workers and the interests of riders,” Jim Evers, president of Carmen’s Local 589, said in the statement.
The T has struggled to hire bus operators since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing cuts and cancellations even as the agency laid out plans to expand service by 25 percent over five years.
The MBTA says it employs 200 fewer bus drivers than it did before the pandemic. In the last year, the T hired 200 drivers, but not all of them are fully trained and current employees are leaving faster than new ones are being hired, according to a presentation made Thursday to the board. The T said transit agencies nationwide face hiring challenges.
Robert Butler, a member of the T board, praised the new agreement but said the starting wages won’t attract experienced commercial drivers. The T pays bus drivers $22.21 per hour for an annual salary of about $43,000. Only SEPTA offers a lower hourly starting wage than the MBTA, the Globe reported last month. New drivers at the Washington Metro earn more than $58,600 annually, more than $60,000 in Chicago and above $53,000 in New York City.
“I don’t think people with experience are going to come for $22 an hour. That’s just my opinion,” Butler said.
The driver shortage has meant unexpected trip cancellations and crowded buses for riders. On average, the T is cancelling 3 to 4 percent of scheduled bus trips without warning, mostly because of driver shortages, said Kat Benesh, the T’s acting deputy chief operating officer.
Unscheduled cancellations are called dropped trips. The agency’s service delivery policy allows for the T to cancel 1 in every 200 scheduled bus trips without notice, or 0.5 percent, Benesh said.
“The bus service we provide today as of right now does not meet our own standards,” she said.
To address the problem, Benesh said, summer bus schedules will better reflect the number of drivers available. The change won’t alter the T’s level of bus service, she said, but the schedules will no longer advertise more service than it can deliver. The new schedules take effect July 2.
“To improve reliability this summer we are essentially going to match our schedules to the number of bus operators we have so that we are publishing schedules that we can actually deliver on,” Benesh said. “We call it truth in advertising.”
The current bus schedule has about 89 percent of the bus service before the pandemic, but the MBTA said it hasn’t been able to deliver that many trips. The summer schedule on average will provide riders with 86 percent of pre-pandemic bus service.
On bus routes that carry the most passengers, the number of trips will increase by 2 percent, the T said. There are more than a dozen high frequency bus routes, including Route 77 from Arlington Heights to Harvard Station and Route 66, which services Allston, Cambridge, and Roxbury.
The Route 1 bus that runs between Roxbury and Harvard Square is currently scheduled to run every eight to 12 minutes all day, but more than 14 percent of its scheduled trips are canceled. Its frequency is expected to change to every 10 to 15 minutes on the summer schedule.
And the Route 57 bus from Watertown to Kenmore Station will run every eight to 14 minutes instead of six to 11 minutes. Route 111 between Chelsea and Boston will run every six to eight minutes, instead of every five to seven minutes.
Scheduled service will be less frequent on 62 routes, mostly on weekdays and especially during morning and evening commutes.
Earlier in the meeting, the board heard directly from a T rider frustrated with bus service. The customer described himself as a physicist who rides the Orange Line and Route 1 bus. He said he bought a home in Jamaica Plain because of its proximity to public transportation.
“I’ve come to regret that decision every day that I’ve used the MBTA,” the man told the board.
Route 1 bus service has been routinely cut, he said, and he recently waited 50 minutes for a bus.
“There’s routinely buses coming 20, 30 minutes apart,” he said. “These aren’t problems that are unsolved. Other countries have figured out how to do this.”