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A shortage of bus drivers is causing problems for those who use public transportation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All across the U.S., transit agencies are struggling to keep up. Hiring and retaining enough bus drivers is proving especially challenging. As St. Louis Public Radio's Niara Savage reports, multiple service cuts to that city's transit system are also making it hard for riders to get where they need to go.

NIARA SAVAGE, BYLINE: I'm standing at a bus stop in downtown St. Louis on one of the city's busiest routes. Bus riders here are waiting much longer than usual in the often bitter cold for buses that may arrive late or sometimes not at all. That's because there aren't enough bus drivers, and the city's transit agency has made service cuts to try to adapt. Commuter Christopher Wheaton is one of those waiting for his bus.

CHRISTOPHER WHEATON: Now with them making more cuts, it makes it that much harder to get back and forth to where you need to go.

SAVAGE: Transportation official Taulby Roach says before the pandemic, the transit system here typically saw about seven workers a month leave because of retirement or a new job. Now it's starkly different.

TAULBY ROACH: Several months in a row, we were seeing, you know, kind of an attrition rate that was closer to 21 to 25. Well, you stack several of those months in a row, along with the effects of the pandemic and then the next thing you know, you have a problem.

SAVAGE: To try to deal with that problem, transit officials raised workers' pay. A new metrobus operator with a commercial driver's license now starts at $20 an hour. They're also offering $2,000 bonuses to new and current employees. Even with these new incentives, Taulby Roach says finding qualified bus drivers remains a challenge.

ROACH: Not just anybody can drive a 40-foot bus. There's no question. You know, we need highly professional people.

SAVAGE: Add to that another toll from the pandemic. In the first week of January alone, nearly 60 employees tested positive for COVID and were not able to work. Jason Miller is with the Denver-based transportation consulting firm Fehr & Peers. He says attracting and retaining qualified workers is problematic for transit agencies in Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other big cities across the country. He says some drivers leave because they're frustrated having to deal with difficult passengers while trying to enforce mask mandates.

JASON MILLER: They're really having to play, you know, part-time social worker on board, and that's led to a lot of stress and burnout among operators who have, you know, quit, resigned, either for early retirement or to find better work that, you know, maybe even doesn't pay better but that maybe is just less stressful.

SAVAGE: Catina Wilson is a rep for the local transit union here. She says many drivers just don't feel safe working on the front lines these days.

CATINA WILSON: How many of us would drive down the street in our cars, let somebody flag us down and put a stranger behind our head right now in this day and time? That's what a bus operator does every day.

SAVAGE: For commuter Freddie King, continued driver shortages have drastically altered her morning schedule.

FREDDIE KING: Normally, it would take about an hour to get to work. At this point, I have to wake up over two hours before my shift starts because if I don't get there that early, chances are whatever bus I wanted to take is going to get cancelled. And so I have to be there for, like, three buses in a row to even get to work at all.

SAVAGE: Hardships like these are impacting tens of thousands of riders all across the country. Here in St. Louis, Catina Wilson says her union is negotiating with local transit officials to try to reach an agreement over both safer working conditions and higher pay for transit workers. For NPR News, I'm Niara Savage.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BELTRAN'S "BEAUTIFUL ROBOTS (AMBIENT REPRISE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Niara Savage