Should RI ‘send in the troops’ to solve RIPTA bus driver shortage?

PROVIDENCE — If nothing else works to attract new RIPTA drivers, Republican candidate for governor Ashley Kalus says, if she were in charge she would call in the troops to drive buses.

In her latest attack on Gov. Dan McKee, Kalus said the disruptions in Rhode Island Public Transit Authority service this fall have become so bad he should consider deploying the Rhode Island National Guard.

“The driver shortage means students in Providence cannot get to school,” Kalus said at a news conference in Kennedy Plaza on Tuesday morning. “Not only is Rhode Island failing kids in the classroom, we can’t even get them to the classroom.”

This weekend, RIPTA is set to cut back the frequency of buses on more than 20 routes in response to a driver shortage that has forced trip cancellations including special trips serving Providence high schools.

How RIPTA is dealing with driver shortage

RIPTA has enlisted supervisors to drive buses, held hiring fairs to recruit drivers and is locked in negotiations with the transit workers union on a new contract with pay raises designed to get new drivers onto the roster.

Kalus, who ran COVID testing and vaccination sites in Rhode Island before running for governor, blames Democrat McKee for not taking the driver shortage seriously enough.

What Ashley Kalus says she would do

She says if she were in charge she would:

• Identify recently retired drivers who might be willing to work and, if they are, offer to let them keep receiving their pension while driving part time.

• Have the Department of Labor and Training identify potential driver candidates from within “the commercial driver’s license community.”

• If neither of those things work, “activate the National Guard to help.”

“The Guard’s motto is ‘always ready, always there’ and they would be prepared to act almost immediately,” Kalus said. “Many of the civilian soldiers are well trained in operating large transport vehicles and would have no issues operating a RIPTA bus and insuring safety of students. Dan McKee is the commander and chief of the National Guard and he is missing in action.”

How long does it take to prepare bus new drivers?

New RIPTA drivers start driving paratransit buses before working their way up to the “fixed route” long buses that serve general riders.

And it usually takes around two months to prepare a new driver: four weeks to obtain a commercial driver’s license and five weeks to take the paratransit training course, RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian has said.

Kalus campaign spokesman Matt Hanrahan said ideally the reservists would have commercial driver’s licenses from their civilian lives, but if not there is a federal “Military Skills Test Waiver” program that allows service members with at least two years of experience to get a CDL without taking the test.

The RIPTA Board of Directors will deliberate on the staffing issue Wednesday, and McKee is exploring paying a private company to transport students, spokesman Matt Sheaff said.

Gov. McKee’s plans for staffing issues

“The governor has made clear to the RIPTA Board to prioritize its staffing issues and immediately address its responsibility to transport [Providence Public School District] students,” Sheaff wrote in an email. “Also, at the governor’s direction, his office has been engaged in discussions to explore the transfer of these school transportation services to a private provider.”

Kalus said that growing up, “like many Rhode Islanders, I relied on public transportation to get to work and to get to school.”

She grew up on Massachusetts’ South Shore.

Asked if she had ever taken a RIPTA bus before, Kalus didn’t say. She arrived at Kennedy Plaza by automobile.

Bus drivers are just one of the jobs that agencies across the country have struggled to fill in a tight labor market since the COVID pandemic.

Growing competition for drivers from internet retailers and package delivery services has made it more difficult for transit agencies to fill openings.

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