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MetroBus operator shortage causes cancellations and delays for St. Louis-area riders

A passenger boards an electric bus on Tuesday at the MetroLink’s Grand Station in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A passenger boards an electric bus on Tuesday at MetroLink’s Grand Station in St. Louis.

Bus riders in St. Louis are having a hard time getting around these days. A shortage of MetroBus operators in November prompted Metro Transit to suspend six routes, limit service hours on three additional routes and make frequency changes to dozens of others.

The coronavirus pandemic placed a greater burden on bus drivers. Some are leaving. As a result, riders are waiting longer than usual at bus stops in the often bitter cold or missing work when buses don’t show up at all.

For commuter Freddie King, the service cuts mean she has to get to the bus stop way ahead of time to get to work on time.

“Normally it would take about an hour to get to work. At this point I have to wake up almost, over two hours before my shift starts,” King said. “Because if I don’t get there that early, chances are whatever bus I wanted to take is going to get canceled. So I have to be there for like three buses in a row to even get to work at all.”

The transit agency made the cutbacks because there aren’t enough bus drivers, Bi-State Development CEO Taulby Roach said.

Before the pandemic, Metro Transit typically lost about seven workers a month because of retirement or a new job, Roach said. But for several months, 21 to 25 drivers have left each month.

Passengers board a bus on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, at St. Louis' MetroLink’s Grand Station.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Passengers board a bus on Tuesday at the MetroLink Grand Station. MetroLink officials have noted the challenges in recruiting bus drivers in the midst of the pandemic.

“You stack several of those months in a row along with the effects of the pandemic and the next thing you know, you have a problem,” Roach said.

Some drivers have left Metro Transit for higher-paying jobs with Spire Energy, Ameren or other companies, Roach said.

Another pandemic toll is also hitting Metro Transit’s workforce: Nearly 60 employees tested positive for the coronavirus in the first week of January alone and were unable to work.

To entice drivers to stay and recruit others, Metro Transit raised drivers’ pay. A new MetroBus operator with a commercial driver's license earns nearly $20 an hour. Metro Transit also is offering $2,000 bonuses to new and current employees.

Even with the incentives, Roach predicts it will remain difficult to hire drivers into 2023. That’s bad news for commuters who rely on public transportation to get access to technology and the internet.

Lena Robinson used to take the bus to the Lewis & Clark branch of the St. Louis County Library near her home. But she said Metro Transit cut the route.

“It’s just deeply impacting me now because there’s a lot of work I need to do on the computer at the library because I don't have a computer at home,” Robinson said. “I think that should just be a regular route.”

But Roach says finding qualified operators to cover routes isn’t easy.

“Not just anybody can drive a 40-foot bus,” he said. “There's no question. You know, we need highly professional people, so not everyone makes the cut.”

Attracting and retaining qualified workers is problematic for transit agencies in Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other big cities across the country, said Jason Miller, a Denver-based transportation expert with Fehr & Peers.

The firm works with transit agencies across the country. Miller said some drivers are leaving because they are tasked with dealing with difficult passengers and enforcing mask mandates during the pandemic.

Passengers board a train on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, at St. Louis' MetroLink’s Grand Station.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Passengers board a train on Tuesday at MetroLink’s Grand Station.

“They’re really having to play part-time social worker onboard, and that has led to a lot of stress and burnout among operators who have quit, resigned, either for earlier retirement or to find better work that maybe even doesn’t pay better but that maybe is just less stressful,” Miller said.

Just last month a MetroBus driver suffered catastrophic injuries when a man fired an AR-15-style rifle through a side window of the bus, striking the driver in the head as he drove through St. Louis County.

Some drivers don’t feel safe working on the front lines during the pandemic, said Catina Wilson, vice president of the local transit union.

She said the union has asked Metro Transit for higher pay and safer conditions when working with passengers.

“How many of us would drive down the street in our car, let somebody flag us down and put a stranger behind our head right now in this day and time? That’s what a bus operator does every day,” Wilson said.

Follow Niara on Twitter: @niaraalexandra