Hike service

Staff shortages at VIA persist, leading to service cuts

Staffing shortages at VIA Metropolitan Transit have prompted officials to make temporary service reductions on some bus routes, making life harder for San Antonio residents who rely on public transportation.

During the pandemic, VIA has lost just under a fifth of its bus drivers. VIA employs approximately 860 bus drivers, compared to approximately 1,060 before the pandemic, officials said.

The latest route adjustments, which take effect Monday, reduce the frequency of 16 of its 79 bus routes. These are not the first cuts made during the pandemic. In September, the routes were also reduced. Some routes, such as its downtown VIVA routes, have been suspended.

For residents like Ollie Smith, a carless retiree who lives on the Eastside, those cuts have made it harder to get appointments with doctors and social services. “It’s all so far away,” she said.

Jeff Arndt, president and CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit, pitted the agency against restaurants, some of which have reduced their days or hours due to staffing shortages.

“We can’t say VIA can only operate these days,” he said. Instead, “what we need to do is make sure that the service we’re committing to is in balance with the ridership and the number of operators,” he said.

Staff shortages have stretched its workforce, which must work longer hours to cover more routes.

VIA reached the point where operators were getting fired on their days off and working almost every day, Arndt said., which is a safety hazard as well as a burden on drivers.

“It’s definitely a time when you have to act because it can evolve very quickly,” he said.

Juan Amaya, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 694, agreed the service cuts were necessary given the circumstances. “We had to get creative to be of service and give people time off,” he said.

But he said it’s still a tough choice given how important these roads are to the city’s residents.

And even then, he said, some bus drivers are still working work weeks longer than 50 hours.

The recent driver shortage is the result of VIA’s difficulties in hiring and training during the first year or so of the pandemic, during which VIA instituted a hiring freeze. For months, bus drivers were unable to obtain commercial driver’s licenses because state offices were closed.

Similar hiring gaps for transportation workers are also affecting bus systems in Austin and Dallas, reflecting a tight labor market nationwide. In Texas, unemployment rates have steadily declined and fell to 5% in December.

VIA is currently hiring about 15 new drivers per month, Arndt said. That’s just enough to break even after covering natural attrition, when bus drivers leave or retire. Much of this attrition is due to bus drivers who quit within the first year.

“It’s not for everyone,” he said. “It’s not an 8 to 5 job with a lunch break.”

After that first year, he says, many make a career out of it. Some stay for decades.

Amaya, the union leader, said he believes there are ways to retain more drivers who are new to the job. Improvements could be made to the training process, he said, which has deteriorated in recent years into a “fast lane” that leaves drivers underprepared. And when these new drivers make mistakes, he said, they get more punishment than education.

Arndt said efforts to attract more drivers include an upcoming mentorship program. He said there is also an employee referral bonus and a hiring bonus of up to $2,500.

Agency offers new drivers a starting wage of $20.25 an hour, with a sign-on bonus and benefits.

“It’s the kind of place where you can build a career,” Arndt said.

VIA receives less than three-quarters of a cent of the city’s share of sales tax (1%), while most transit agencies in major Texas metropolitan areas spend a whole cent.

But more money is expected in the near future due to a measure approved by voters in the November 2020 ballot.

Starting in 2026, VIA is expected to start receiving another eighth of a cent, or about $35-40 million, according to city estimates. This sales tax currently funds the city’s workforce development program, SA Ready to Work. Previously, it funded protections on the Edwards Aquifer and developed hiking and biking trails through the city.