Pittsburgh Regional Transit and the union that represents bus drivers have reached agreement on an expanded effort to train new drivers and reduce or eliminate the amount of trips canceled because there is no operator available.

Under an agreement with Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the agency will add eight new trainers to increase the number to 32. The agency wants to run two on-street training classes a day once daylight saving time begins so it can reach its goal of training as many as 250 new drivers by the end of the year.

For years, transit agencies across the country have struggled to keep enough transit operators, a problem that became worse after the pandemic. PRT’s manpower shortage was exacerbated in March 2022 when it fired 43 operators who refused to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and only 10 agreed to return more than a year later when the agency eliminated the vaccination requirement.

With the additional trainers, CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said the agency should be able to have training classes for up to 300 new drivers this year. Fewer than that are expected to complete the course because some will decide the job isn’t for them or they won’t be able to meet requirements.

Kelleman has said in recent months that more aggressive marketing, hiring bonuses and more sick days in the first year have increased the number of job applicants. Trainees are paid about $18 an hour, and the agency will help them get their commercial license if they don’t already have one.

The new trainers will help move them onto local roads quicker.

“We don’t have a hiring bottleneck,” Kelleman told the agency’s board of directors Friday. “We have a training bottleneck.”

Ross Nicotero, president and business agent for Local 85, said the new trainers would be hired from the ranks of drivers who have five or more years of experience. Interested drivers will make presentations to current trainers who will select which ones will fill the new seats and train them.

“I would always favor more trainers, but we don’t have any more classroom space,” Nicotero said. “Local 85 takes pride in training our own.”

When they are ready, the new trainers should have a class of 50 prospective drivers waiting for them, said Mike Heidkamp, the agency’s chief operating officer for transportation. A total of 42 started in the current class, and 32 remain.

The agency is budgeted for 1,232 operators, but service schedules currently call for 1,050. Heidkamp said it has just under 1,000 now and makes up the difference with voluntary overtime.

That manpower shortage has led the agency to reduce service several times in the past three years so it can provide the service on its printed schedules. That included a service cut of just under 2% that began last week.

The number of missed trips due to unavailable drivers reached 18% just after the vaccine firings, well above the goal of 1.5%. It has settled to under 2% in recent weeks.

Kelleman has stressed that she doesn’t foresee any additional service cuts, but Heidkamp cautioned that the manpower problem won’t go away quickly. He said he was part of a hiring blitz in the early 1990s, and many of those operators are ready for retirement.

A total of 21 retired in January, normally the highest month, and other months throughout the year generally have 10 or less.

“This isn’t just something we’re going to have to do this year, but then the next two years, too,” he said. “It’s a challenge. It’s going to be that way for a while.”

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.