RTD Proposes ‘Significant’ Cuts To Bus And Train Service Over Driver Shortage

October 17, 2019
An RTD bus drives up Lincoln Street south of Alameda Avenue. Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)An RTD bus drives up Lincoln Street south of Alameda Avenue. Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
An RTD bus drives up Lincoln Street south of Alameda Avenue. Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Regional Transportation District board will consider a staff proposal next week to cut a "significant amount of service for a temporary period," to deal with ongoing bus driver and train operator shortages.

Currently, RTD is short about 100 bus drivers and 60 light rail operators. So current operators are often required to work six days a week to keep service levels up. Even so, RTD officials say more bus and train runs have been canceled in recent months.

"The labor shortage has dramatically impacted our employees and our ability to deliver reliable service to our customers," staff wrote in a memo to the board. "This is eroding public confidence in our service."

Spokeswoman Tina Jaquez said cuts would likely be focused on the agency's least popular routes.

"We recognize that the challenges we're having right now, keeping and having enough operators, is impacting both employees and our passengers," she told CPR. "We want to make sure that we're hopefully proposing an option that the board can look at that would help both."

Jaquez couldn't say what specific lines would be most affected, and how long cuts could last.

Staff have proposed cutting enough service to reduce the need for 58 train and bus operators. That wouldn't end overtime requirements, but would allow the agency to spread out the mandates so the same employees don't have to work them every week.

"In addition, this should significantly reduce any dropped service and provide more reliable service on the routes that RTD will be providing," staff wrote. In short, they propose having fewer runs, but more reliable ones.

Board member Natalie Menten said overtime requirements are falling disproportionately on new employees, and lead some to quit shortly after finishing RTD's training program.

"It's very easy to see why they start to look for another job," she said. "That's not good for the taxpayers. It's not good for the agency. It's not good for the riders."

RTD and the ATU Local 1001, which includes both bus and train operators, agreed to a new contract last year to raise pay to nearly $20 an hour. RTD staff say they'll continue to look for new recruitment techniques.

But the union's president, Julio Rivera, said RTD needs to focus on retention, not hiring. The problem is working conditions, he said.

"The biggest issue we have right now is still, believe it or not, restroom breaks," Rivera said. "You cannot expect someone to operate a bus for eight hours a day, not knowing when he or she could utilize the restroom. In the 21st century, that's still an issue."

In an RTD survey, operators said that forced overtime has affected their health, relationships at home, and the safety of RTD's services. Rivera said the union opposes the proposal.

Menten said RTD should look at cutting back on high-subsidy services to become more fiscally sustainable.

"I'm leaning towards supporting the motion [to formally cut service]," she said.

Board member Angie Rivera-Malpiede said she won't be supporting the proposal. Too many people rely on RTD's services for it to officially cut them, she said.

"We're really trying to think outside of the box on what is it that we can do as an agency to get more folks to drive for RTD," she said. "Right now I don't know what that answer is. I really don't know. But boy, I'm gonna do my damnedest to figure it out."

The board's Operations & Customer Service Committee will discuss the matter at a regular meeting on Tuesday.