Bus driver shortages continue to hinder the reliability and frequency of public transportation services in Detroit.
The number of bus operators fluctuated in recent months, averaging 358 active drivers between July and the end of October. Detroit Department of Transportation Interim Executive Director G. Michael Staley said he wants a minimum of 380 drivers, and he’d like to build a roster of 600 by September 2024. But talks have stalled with the Amalgamated Transit Union for pay increases, a key factor in the staff shortfall.
Staley provided a snapshot of DDOT’s progress to a Detroit City Council committee Monday. The council directed DDOT to provide quarterly performance updates. DDOT data shows 36 percent of buses have been late on average this year. On-time performance for weekdays during the last week in October hit a low point of 59 percent.
“The driver shortage issue has a direct impact on not only the frequency of the service, but the reliability of the service as well,” Staley said Monday.
In October, 954,275 rides were given by city buses, a slight increase from the previous month.”
City data also showed 100 morning bus trips were missed in October, an improvement from 190 in September and 246 in August. There were 113 missed trips in the evenings last month, compared to 238 in September and 259 in August.
Staley said staff shortages make it harder to fill weekend assignments. Thirty bus operators have left DDOT since July. There were 90 operators in training as of Oct. 29. Staley said the goal is to hire 30 operators per month from January through September next year, adding 270 drivers. If the turnover rate continues, DDOT expects to lose some 84 drivers by next September – increasing the total to 586.
ATU Local 26 President Schetrone Collier said that’s a longshot.
“What Disney movie is he living in? How do you do that, paying less than the other major carriers in this region?,” Collier said.
DDOT’s contract with the ATU does not expire until 2025. Staley said the city has offered to reopen the collective bargaining agreement earlier to negotiate wage and bonus increases. Collier said opening the contract would also expose the union to losing benefits.
“We never have been in negotiations,” Collier said. “They came to us with a proposal of opening up our contract. I made it clear to them that we would not be doing that … They want to open our contract to raid everything they couldn’t get in the last negotiations and offer us money to do it.”
Collier said DDOT drivers should make the same as drivers with the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART). Collier said he’s waiting for the resolution of contract negotiations for SMART drivers – he expects wages will increase to $31.50 an hour.
DDOT bus drivers are paid $16.15 per hour during training and can make up to $22.61 per hour within four years. Staley said the city is offering to raise the salary range to $19.15 and $25.61 per hour.
Collier said the pay scale incentivizes people to go through DDOT’s training and then get a better job with SMART or the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.
“We have become a minor league system for all the other people in the region who need (commercially licensed) drivers,” Collier said. “I’ll come to DDOT, have them pay me while I’m training and then when I get my CDL I’ll go work somewhere else. That’s what’s happening and it’s been happening for a long time.”
Staley said the city also proposed raising quarterly retention bonuses by $500, raising the total potential earning from $4,000 to $6,000. Staley said ATU officials are “unwilling” to have further discussion until negotiations with SMART are finished.
Collier said the performance bonuses are less important than overall wage increases for ATU members.
“People want to know how much they’re making an hour,” he said.
Council members said they plan to hold Staley accountable for hitting the goals he outlined on Monday. Staley took over DDOT in August after former executive director Mikel Oglesby stepped down. Staley was first hired in 2022 to manage Detroit’s paratransit services.
“We can’t get bus drivers at this lower (pay) rate,” said Council Member Mary Waters. “We need you, Director Staley, to fight for increases for these drivers so we can retain them.”
Waters highlighted a recent Legislative Policy Division report that found bus drivers lack bathroom access while on the clock. The report suggests Detroit is ill-equipped to maintain new public restroom facilities. There are no contractual agreements to make private restroom facilities accessible to drivers, but some businesses have opened their bathrooms as a courtesy.
“Ensuring public safety, meeting schedules, dealing with unruly passengers, and traffic congestion are all components of the job of being a bus driver in the city of Detroit,” the report states. “The addition of worrying about where and when bus drivers will be able to relieve themselves can only escalate the stress of an already difficult and taxing job.”
Waters said DDOT also needs to improve safety protections for drivers. Staley agreed.
“Our number one priority is safety,” Staley said. “We have an obligation every day to make sure that every one of our drivers and passengers that they transport get home safely every day.”