A sick bus driver could leave transit riders feeling ill. That’s because budget cuts have reduced the number of staffers who can take over an empty route, often leaving riders waiting for a bus that will never arrive.
“Customers are waiting three or four hours for a bus at night,” Queens Village resident Charlton Dsouza told attendees at the Community Board 13 meeting on Monday night. “This has been going on in southeast Queens, in Queens Village.”
Dsouza said a former top transit official told him that the MTA has a policy not to fill in routes when a driver calls in sick — something the agency disputed when contacted by the Chronicle this week, though it did not say it never happens.
“When an operator calls in sick we make every effort to cover his run with available extra list employees,” MTA spokesman Charles Seaton said in an email. “In the event that an employee is not available, we will make every effort to cover the work with an operator on overtime especially in the evening and overnight hours.”
Each bus depot has certain operators who have not been assigned permanent routes and are there for the express purpose of filling in for drivers who are out sick, but with budget cuts there are fewer and fewer of those staffers around, according to Bill Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.
During the meeting, Corey Bearak, policy and political director for Local 1056 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus operators in Queens sent a text message to the president of the group, Daneek Miller, asking him if there is such a policy, and he said that there is.
“These are incidental service cuts and it’s done throughout the system,” Miller wrote.
Bearak said the union has been meeting with legislators to try and schedule hearings at both City Hall and in Queens on the quality of bus service.
“They are trying to save money on the backs of the hardworking folks of the city,” Bearak said. “The people who ride buses are disproportionately the least well off of all city residents.”
Since there are different staff levels at different depots, route cuts have greater impact in some areas than others, according to Henderson. And they are felt more in the evenings than during the day, when buses run less frequently.
“Overall it’s not a big problem; the percentage of instances are probably low, but if it happens to you then it is a big problem,” Henderson said, adding that transit riders don’t take kindly to being stranded.
For the 12-month period ending December 2010, all MTA bus operations had a 98 percent route completion record, he said, not too bad considering that takes into account absent drivers and bus breakdowns.
Still, Henderson said, his group is aware of how distressing a cut bus route can be for riders, but short of getting more funding, there is little the MTA can do. However, Henderson did note that the agency is trying to keep the public better informed on such matters.
There is a pilot program being tested on the B63 bus line in Brooklyn. Buses have been equipped with GPS tracking enabling riders to go to the MTA’s website and find out when one will arrive. They can also view a map of where the buses are on their routes or text message a code that is posted at the bus stops and receive a reply with the locations of the next several buses. Henderson expects the program to take effect citywide by 2015.
Dzouza called on Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who was also at the CB 13 meeting, to investigate the issue, one the government watchdog said that he had never heard of before.
“If that’s the case, it’s a horrible policy, that would honestly hurt a lot of people in the City of New York,” de Blasio said. “We will be meeting with the MTA chairman next week, and we will ask him if there is a formal policy with these night buses and what happens to them, if someone calls in sick. I hope and pray the answer is, ‘We find a replacement.’”