Staffing shortages at VIA Metropolitan Transit have prompted officials to make temporary reductions of service on some bus routes — complicating the lives of San Antonio residents who depend on public transportation.

Over the course of the pandemic, VIA has lost a little less than a fifth of its bus drivers. VIA employs about 860 bus drivers, down from about 1,060 before the pandemic, officials said.

The latest route adjustments, which take effect Monday, reduces the frequency of 16 of its 79 bus routes. These aren’t the first reductions made during the pandemic. In September, routes were also reduced. Some routes, such as its VIVA downtown routes, have been suspended.

For residents like Ollie Smith, a retiree without a car who lives in on the Eastside, these reductions have made it harder to get to appointments for doctors and social services. “Everything is so far away,” she said.

Jeff Arndt, president and CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit, contrasted the agency with restaurants, some of which have cut their days or hours amid staff shortages.

“We can’t say VIA can only run on these days,” he said. Instead, “What we have to do is make sure the service we commit to is in balance with the ridership, and with the number of operators,” he said.

Staff shortages have stretched thin its workforce, who must work more hours to cover more routes.

VIA reached the point where operators were getting pulled in on their days off and working nearly every day, Arndt said, which poses a safety hazard as well as a burden on the drivers.

“That’s definitely a point when you need to take action, because it can devolve really quickly,” he said.

Juan Amaya, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 694, agreed the service reductions were necessary given the circumstance. “We had to be creative to make service and give people some time off,” he said.

But he said it’s still a difficult choice given the importance of these routes for residents in the city.

And even then, he said, some bus drivers are still pulling workweeks of more than 50 hours.

The recent deficit of drivers is the result of difficulties VIA had in hiring and training during the first year or so of the pandemic, during which VIA instituted a hiring freeze. For months, bus drivers could not obtain commercial driver’s licenses because state offices were closed.

Similar hiring gaps for transportation workers are plaguing bus systems in Austin and Dallas, as well, a reflection of a tight labor market nationwide. In Texas, unemployment levels have steadily declined and dropped to 5% in December.

VIA currently hires about 15 new drivers a month, Arndt said. It’s just enough to break even after covering natural attrition, as bus drivers leave or retire. Much of that attrition is due to bus drivers who quit within the first year.

“It’s not for everyone,” he said. “This isn’t an 8-to-5 job with a lunch break.”

After that first year, he said, many make it a career. Some stay for decades.

Amaya, the union leader, said he believed there are ways to retain more drivers who are new to the job. Improvements could be made to the training process, he said, which in recent years has deteriorated to a “fast track” that leaves drivers under-prepared. And when these new drivers commit errors, he said, they are met with more punishment than education.

Arndt said that efforts to attract more drivers include an upcoming mentorship program. He said there is also an employee referral bonus and a hiring incentive of up to $2,500.

The agency is offering new drivers starting pay of $20.25 per hour, with a sign-on bonus and benefits.

“This is the kind of place you can make a career,” Arndt said.

VIA receives less than three-quarters of a cent of the city’s share of sales tax (1 percent) while most transportation agencies in large Texas metropolitan areas dedicate a full cent.

But more money is expected in the near future because of a measure approved by voters on the November 2020 ballot.

Beginning in 2026, VIA is set to begin receiving another eighth of a cent — around $35-40 million, according to city estimates. That sales tax currently funds the city’s workforce development program, SA Ready to Work. It previously funded protections on the Edwards Aquifer and developing hike and bike trails across the city.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.