Pittsburgh Regional Transit may be turning the corner and making progress on increasing the number of operators it has available to run the transit system.

CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman told the board of directors Friday that the most recent graduating class of new operators had 27 new operators and 24 more are in the current class. The final class last year had six operators.

So far this year, the agency has hired 55 operators and had 28 retirees.

“At a minimum, this will cover retirements and attrition,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “If we can get 20 new operators every two months, we’ll be OK.”

Hiring and retaining operators has been a chronic problem at transit agencies across the country for decades, leading to substantial overtime at many agencies. That problem became worse in this area last year when PRT fired more than 50 operators who refused to follow the agency’s mandatory requirement to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

Kelleman attributed the hiring binge to changes the agency made last year to its contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union. Those changes, which included raising the training wage to $19 an hour and allowing new drivers to have paid sick leave during their first year of work, “appear to be working,” Kelleman said.

The agency also is regularly attending job fairs to promote positions available there. The agency has budgeted for 1,200 operator positions and can operate fully with 1,064, but typically it is at least 50 short of being fully staffed.

Ross Nicotero, president and business agent for the ATU, said he agreed that training classes of 20 or more would maintain the system. But he said he is skeptical the agency can sustain that training rate because of the competition for drivers with commercial licenses and the high rate of drivers reaching retirement age in the next two or three years.

“I don’t think they can get that many,” he said.

Kelleman’s upbeat report on hiring came on the same day the board adopted new service standards to reflect how the agency is operating after the pandemic. Bus ridership is about two-thirds of what it was in 2019 while light rail is only about 30%.

The new standards will allow the agency to run some trips less frequently if there is low ridership and require it to increase service sooner if trips are overcrowded. Federal law requires transit agencies to review service standards every two to three years, and PRT hadn’t done that since 2019, before the pandemic.

Kelleman said the standards will allow the agency to be “a little more creative” in how it adjusts service and won’t necessarily lead to reductions. She noted that while some agencies across the country cut service by 20% or more during the pandemic, PRT has maintained about 92% of its service.

“If you’re missing that 8%, you’re grumpy with us,” she said.

The agency will begin a two-year study of all 91 bus routes this summer to determine whether schedules should be adjusted or the paths should be changed to serve growing areas.

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.