Staffing shortage prompts transit district to consider hiring bus drivers in-house

A man gets on a NCTD Breeze bus at the Oceanside Transit Center in Oceanside in 2019.
(The Union-Tribune)

North County agency has contracted with private operator since 2010


North County Transit District, which has used a contracting company for bus drivers since 2010, could return to in-house drivers in an effort to solve its labor shortage.

The district’s current contract with MV Transportation for bus operators ends June 30, 2024, and a three-year extension option is available. However, the district could decide later this year to decline the extension and return to employing its own bus drivers, said Damon Blythe, chief operations officer for buses, in a presentation at last week’s NCTD board meeting.

“We are in a very, very difficult labor market right now,” Blythe said. “The contractor is having extreme difficulty attracting staff due to (low) wages and benefits.”

The contractor has trouble hiring and keeping drivers in part because its wages, which start at $18.84 an hour, can’t compete with wages paid by other driving jobs. Amazon delivery drivers start at $20 to $22 an hour, and garbage truck drivers start at $26 an hour, Blythe said.

The transit district’s board of directors is expected to choose one of three options in September: extend the contract with MT Transportation, allow the contract to expire and look for a new contractor, or resume the in-house hiring and management of drivers for the district’s Breeze buses and Lift and Flex services.

Blythe said the district could offer employees better benefits including a pension, which the drivers don’t have under the contractor, and lower health-care costs. He did not mention wages, but he said there’s also more prestige or “brand recognition” in working for the district than for a contractor.

Director Sharon Jenkins, a San Marcos City Council member, urged the district staff to proceed with caution.

“There is a huge financial component to this,” Jenkins said. “We all need to be sure we are completely informed. I want to make sure it’s fully analyzed.”

Board Chair Jewel Edson, a Solana Beach City Council member, thanked Blythe for providing a preview ahead of the September meeting.

“I know ... that the staff has been evaluating the bus business model for some time,” Edson said.

The transit board voted in 2009 to outsource bus drivers because budget deficits at the time were threatening to reduce basic services, Blythe said, but now the district has a five-year balanced budget forecast and money in reserves.

“Things look a little different now,” he said.

Customers today expect a higher quality of service, and things such as climate change, equity and social justice make it important for the district to have “control over the day-to-day operation of buses,” he said.

Over the next few years, the district will be replacing its fleet with new all-electric battery and hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses that require extensive training in operations and maintenance.

“All of the strategic projects we have coming down the road require extensive training to be successful,” he said.

“The battery electric bus project alone is akin to training a plumber how to be an electrician,” he said. “All of our mechanics know how to work on an internal combustion engine, fueled by compressed natural gas, but the maintenance and repair of an electric battery bus requires a whole new set of skills.

“We’ve really got to focus on training and workforce development if we are going to make this work,” he said.

The driver shortage along with continuing absences caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced the district in April to reduce the frequency of service on its busiest Breeze routes to one bus every 30 minutes instead of one every 15 to 20 minutes.

The reductions cut the number of bus drivers needed to run the system from 200 to 185, transit officials said at the time. They have not said when the former levels of service will resume.

“It reduced the number of trips that we cancel on a spur-of-the-moment basis, but it’s also affecting our ability to grow ridership,” Blythe said.

Bus riders want more frequent and more reliable service, he said.