CA: Marin Bus Riders Struggle to Cope with Driver Shortage, Service Cuts

Aug. 10--A spate of driver retirements and absenteeism have made it a long, hard summer for some Golden Gate Transit riders who have seen buses vanish from service and routes trimmed.

Golden Gate Transit currently has 254 drivers, but has a goal to employ 280. Also, on average, a third of drivers are absent on any given day because of vacation, a sick day or extended leave. That means one of every three drivers doesn't come to work on an average day, transit officials said.

Golden Gate Transit officials have also cited a high number of retirements this year as part of the problem. This year 13 drivers have retired. Typically there are two retirements at this point in the year. The situation has led to the transit system grappling with how to provide service to all of its riders.

"It's been a combination of things: we have had some retirements, some summer vacations and driver absences," said Denis Mulligan, bridge district general manager. "We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience."

As a result, earlier this summer Golden Gate Transit canceled trips without warning on commute runs into San Francisco, causing some people to arrive late to jobs. When the buses did come, they sometimes were standing room only because of the canceled runs, forcing people to stand for the journey into San Francisco.

As a remedy to the problem of unreliability, Golden Gate cut some service on Routes 4, 24 and 54 serving Mill Valley, the Ross Valley and Novato at the end July. While service is more reliable, there are fewer runs. That has forced some to take circuitous routes to get to work.

Commuter Wendy Wong of San Anselmo used to take Route 24, which stopped a block from her home. She would get off at the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza, then transfer to one of six buses going to the San Francisco Civic Center, where she works. But with her bus run eliminated, she now has a longer trip.

"In the morning, I have to walk to the San Anselmo Hub, which takes me 10 to 12 minutes. From there, I take Route 23 San Rafael/Canal to the San Rafael Transit Center. From there, I transfer to the Route 101 San Francisco, which brings me directly to the San Francisco Civic Center, where my workplace is," Wong said. "So due to the cancellation of my originally scheduled Route 24 San Francisco bus, I now have to leave my home earlier, walk farther to catch my first bus, and rearrange my entire morning commute just to get to work on time."

Commuter Jake Dear, also a San Anselmo resident, said his afternoon commute has been upended by the cuts.

"One of the recent two afternoon Route 24 cancellations was the bus I'd normally take home in the evening," said Dear, who has taken the Route 24 for 28 years. "Now that it's been eliminated, there's a huge, 46-minute gap between the bus prior to that and the next bus. This has forced me to abandon the Route 24, and take the ferry instead." From there he takes The Wave shuttle bus back to San Anselmo.

Alan Pavkovic, another Route 24 user from San Anselmo, has avoided the bus since its runs were trimmed, preferring to drive into the city and bike to work as he has done on some days for the last couple of years.

"Now on days when I don't bike, I end up driving all the way in since I find Golden Gate Transit's lack of service is not worth the hassle," he said.

Jim Skidmore of Novato, a Route 54 commuter, also has had to adjust his schedule to take an earlier bus. He was left hanging when his normal bus didn't show several times last month.

"I suggested to them that they work on sending a text out the first thing in the morning when they know a bus won't run its normal schedule," he said. "I know they must know this information at least an hour or more before they decide to cancel it. That would be helpful."

The district says it's accelerating the hiring of new bus drivers. Once a group of eight prospective bus drivers graduate from a 10-week training course, passengers should see better service, officials said. Those drivers should be on the road by the end of this month. A second larger class will graduate in December, transit officials said.

But commuter Wong said the transit system should have been better prepared.

"(They) knew they would be lacking drivers prior to the summer bus schedule coming out on June 8, as a good number of the drivers who are gone are through retirement, which allows plenty of notice to adjust accordingly," she said.

Copyright 2014 - The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

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