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King County Metro needs drivers, trips being canceled

King County Executive Dow Constantine revealed his two-year budget Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. In it are increases in spending for area transit. (King County Metro)

Aaron Mason catches a King County Metro bus from Alki Beach every morning to get to work at the KIRO Radio offices in Eastlake. But this week his bus didn’t come. He brushed it off, initially, but then it happened again — the very next day.

“I usually have no complaints, but for two days in a row it didn’t show up and the dozen or so people waiting had to catch the next bus at 8:26 a.m. which made all of us late,” Mason said.

“I was late to work both days,” he said, noting that fortunately on those days it didn’t set him back much. “Some people are not so fortunate.”

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He may not have realized it at the time, but Mason was among others in the region who have been left scratching their heads after a bus hasn’t come. King County Metro is a bit short on drivers — by a couple hundred — and when that shortage conflicts with bus schedules, trips get canceled. Metro is trying to catch up to driver levels, but in the meantime people like Mason are on the roadside.

Mason checked the King County Metro Twitter page to see if he missed any announcements about canceled runs. He couldn’t find any, yet there were others commenting online about buses not showing up.

“Their answer was, basically, ‘We don’t have enough drivers,'” Mason said.

Others in the area have expressed their frustrations, just like a Violent Femmes song, as their precious time kept slipping past. And in fact, it’s happened to me, too, in North Seattle. I recently waited at a stop after a bus failed to show, wondering what was going on, checking various transit apps. I didn’t think too much of it at the time and just caught the next ride.

King County Metro driver shortage

According to Jeff Switzer with King County Metro, there are a variety of reasons a specific trip on a bus line will be canceled — such as having no driver available. Canceled trips are “primarily a temporary and intermittent challenge during peak commute times when we need the most drivers,” Switzer said.

The Metro bus policy is in place to avoid cancelling the first and last trips on a route and to avoid cancelling the same trip multiple days in a row. Metro recommends riders sign up for email and text message alerts. Switzer also notes the Puget Sound Trip Planner app can be helpful finding arrival times and cancellations.

But trip cancellations are merely symptoms of a larger issue — Metro needs bus drivers. The operation currently has about 2,700 drivers. But it’s short by a couple hundred needed to keep all routes fully running. The transit operation put off hiring more drivers around 2014 when funding was tight. After voters approved Proposition 1, more funding became available and Metro is now engaged in an effort to hire more drivers — to make up for those it didn’t hire before, and to cover the more than 100 drivers likely to retire over the next few years.

“A current snapshot: We are working to hire more than 50 operators to operate the current schedule levels,” Switzer said. “An estimated range of 200 additional new drivers are needed annually to also address attrition, retirements, promotions, transfers — such as drivers becoming rail operators for streetcar or Link Light rail.”

A new Metro bus driver starts as a part-time employee. Training takes about five weeks for that part-time driver. Then it takes up to three weeks of training for them to be promoted to full-time. Part-time drivers generally work commute times, and full-time drivers work all-day service routes. When a driver is out due to illness, or training, or another reason, Metro pulls from a pool of standby operators qualified to drive the buses. But that pool is sometimes dry and in turn, trips get canceled.

Metro has an online application for interested drivers.

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