RIPTA needs at least 30 new drivers to resume full service

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) is making service changes to almost a third of its bus routes next month due to ongoing staffing challenges.

CEO Scott Avedisian said RIPTA is currently short about 30 drivers and struggling to recruit new ones. He also said nearly 60 drivers have retired since the start of the pandemic.

The “unprecedented” labor shortage is impacting 19 of RIPTA’s 65 bus routes — 17, 19, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, 31, 50, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 60, 63, 65X, 67, 72, 87, and 92 — beginning Saturday, Oct. 22.

For example, on Route 56 on Chalkstone Avenue in Providence, drivers may have to wait about 18 minutes between buses, compared to the usual 15 minutes, according to Avedisian.

“What that allows us to do is pick up more runs so that we can move other bus drivers or other groups to cover even more service,” he explained.

Avedisian said that while the staffing challenges means having to reduce trips, the changes will not affect morning routes or other peak times.

RIPTA is currently in negotiations with Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Division 618 (which represents RIPTA drivers) to increase the starting hourly pay for van operators in an effort to become more competitive.

Union treasurer Steven Sousa tells 12 News he believes RIPTA will need to recruit far more than 30 drivers at its next job fair in October.

“You still need another 30 to accommodate fixed route,” he said. “So I think the number is closer to 60 before you start seeing things get better.”

Even if all the drivers needed to resume full service were hired at the next recruiting event, RIPTA says it will still take time to train them. The agency offers free CDL training, but notes that it takes at least four weeks to complete.

RIPTA drivers are currently hired beginning at $16.45 an hour, and topping out at just under $21 an hour. Other busing companies, like Peter Pan, offer wages starting between $23–26.

Peter Crean, vice president of safety and security for Peter Pan, said finding applicants is difficult.

“It’s limited our availability to offer additional services to passengers,” Crean told 12 News over the phone.

Joe Cole, the vice president of ATU Local 618, said service has been affected all year, and the impacts now are much greater.

“This last choose-up that we’re in now, we had 389 drivers to pick work and they had 424 jobs, so the remainder of those jobs were not covered by anyone here because there was no one here to to fill the positions for those jobs,” Cole explained.

Cole said he feels the shortage is only being brought to light now due to delays delays impacting Providence students who rely on RIPTA to get to school. He said they lost roughly 680 trips just last week.

“If you multiply that by roughly nine passengers, you’re looking at over 6,000 passengers we left behind,” he added.

The union told 12 News it’s hoping that Gov. Dan McKee can intervene.

“I would hope there’s going to be a plan to fill those positions to keep the routes going, including the transportation for students in the Providence schools,” McKee said to reporters on Thursday.

McKee’s GOP opponent, Ashley Kalus, showed up at RIPTA’s news conference Friday with her thoughts on the situation.

The Republican said she felt riders should have known about the potential impacts before the school year started.

“And also communicating this is what the issue is before you have something like this coming, because if you can pay a fair wage and use money wisely to pay drivers and to plan for it — as you saw there is a timeline for bringing drivers on — so now we are going to push out that timeline for different routes,” she said.

Along with the temporary service reductions, RIPTA said it will also be implementing annual changes which include trip time adjustments to Routes 13, 29 and 67.

In addition, a trip time will be added to Route 54 (Lincoln/Woonsocket), while Route 92 (East Side/ Federal Hill/ RI College) will now serve Governor Apartments.

Passengers are strongly encouraged to check the new schedules to understand how service changes may affect them.