In the bright and airy break room of Metro Transit’s new North Loop garage one Saturday morning, about 150 people gathered, some sitting in chairs, some munching on cookies while others waited to be interviewed for a chance to drive a bus for the agency.
Tangie Alanwoko, who relocated to the Twin Cities and once drove buses for the Toronto Transit Commission, was one of those people. “Interacting with people is my cup of tea,” said Alanwoko. “I don’t like to be stuffy and sit in offices all the time with just walls and walls, or windows that you can look out [of] without any interaction with people.”
For years, Metro Transit, like other agencies across the nation, has desperately sought drivers for their buses. The pandemic made the problem worse as riders retreated to their homes and worked remotely in the early days. Its drivers were idle, and some quit or retired. Currently, the agency is short about 300 drivers compared to 2019.
In the last two years, the agency organized monthly hiring events and worked with the union that represents Metro Transit drivers to increase their wages. It appears the hiring efforts may be paying off, and there might not be service cuts in March. However, the agency continues to struggle with difficult working conditions that have attracted federal scrutiny and threaten to drive away their drivers new and old.
In October, the Federal Transit Administration asked Metro Transit, along with eight other transit agencies in the U.S. serving large metropolitan areas, to describe how they are mitigating assaults after learning those agencies comprised close to 80 percent of reported operator assaults nationwide.
Manny Butler was one of those drivers who were assaulted. “[It was a] random act of violence, just because the person decided that they were having a bad day,” said Butler after joining fellow drivers in a meeting of the Metropolitan Council, which runs Metro Transit, to demand they address their concerns about assaults.
Drivers, riders and agency brass are also concerned about riders using drugs while riding the agency’s vehicles. According to the agency’s latest quarterly safety and security update, calls for the agency’s police to address drug use on transit in October 2022 more than doubled from October 2020 levels.
Representatives from the drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, say at least 10 drivers have been hospitalized for fentanyl exposure. “It’s not a comfortable feeling to know that your members are receiving Narcan after they go to the hospital,” said Union President Ryan Timlin.
The agency has also been slow to respond to drivers in imminent need. “There was a time—I will say six, seven years ago—we could call Metro Transit’s [transit control center] and they would have police there in four, five minutes,” said a Metro Transit driver who is based out of the agency’s East Metro garage in St. Paul. “It’s 45 minutes to an hour before you get a cop now, or until you get to the end of your route. That’s not safe.”
Despite Metro Transit increasing the wages of their officers, they remain 60 full-time police officers short. They plan to lobby for legislative changes to allow civilian workers to patrol and cite fare evaders. Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, plans to introduce a bill to be heard on February 23 to flood the light rail system with police from other agencies, as well as social workers, this spring.
Back at the hiring event, some applicants were worried about the issues they would have to address while behind the wheel. “It worries me a little bit. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to handle that,” said Corteisha Washington, who is a customer care representative.
Others, including Alanwoko, don’t seem too worried. “There’s problems all over the world, all over the country, with every bus company [and] with every subway line,” said Alanwoko. “You just take everything with stride, be more vigilant of your surroundings, and pay attention to everything in detail.
“The companies are doing the best they can to help each and every employee,” Alanwoko said. “The public will be the public.”
Some just wanted to drive the bus for fun and perhaps indulge in their childhood interests, such as Donald Adderley, who works as a director at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. “I like interacting with big things. When this opportunity came along, I said I’m taking it.”
Although the agency continues its hiring spree, they will not restore service to pre-pandemic levels immediately. It can take at least seven months for drivers to make it past training and a probationary period to become full-fledged drivers. They hope to add some service back come summertime.
“As we continue this positive momentum, we’re going to be looking towards June to identify some frequency improvements,” said Chief Operating Officer Brian Funk at the hiring event. “And then hopefully, again in August. That’s still all being penciled out right now.”
Update: Since the publication of this story, the Met Council has announced new safety measures for Metro Transit drivers. Visit this link for details.
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