T notes: Bus drivers not easy to hire

Grumbling about the 111; no worries on West Station

THE MBTA APPEARS to be having difficulty recruiting new bus drivers and keeping existing ones healthy and on the job.

Bonnie Haase, the T’s assistant general manager for human resources, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday that the transit agency is having problems recruiting bus drivers who can survive the testing and license approval process required to land a job. One of her colleagues suggested the state’s low unemployment rate may be partly to blame.

Haase said 5,000 people were invited recently to take a test for the position of bus driver but only 2,310 showed up. She said 20 to 30 percent of applicants who do show up typically fail a driving records check. And she said that of those who do pass the test (1,098 at a recent session), the vast majority (870) failed to follow through and obtain their commercial drivers license.

“The process itself needs to be rethought,” said Jeffrey Gonneville, the chief operating officer at the T.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board and executive director of the 128 Business Council, said her organization has found that drivers are very difficult to find right now. She said her organization has started paying five-figure signing bonuses to help recruit bus drivers.

The MBTA also is having difficulty keeping bus drivers on the job. According to Haase, 27 percent of MBTA employees are approved under the Family and Medical Leave Act for intermittent leaves, the type that often lead to unscheduled absences that can lead to trip cancellations. She said 42 percent of those approved for FMLA leaves are bus drivers, and the three most common ailments are diseases of the nervous system, the neck and back, and mental and behavioral disorders.

Luis Ramirez, the general manager of the T, said the agency is beginning to explore whether workplace conditions, specifically the stress of driving a bus in Boston and uncomfortable seats, may play a role in FMLA leaves.

Tibbits-Nutt asked T officials whether drivers get regular bathroom and lunch breaks. T officials said they would have to get back to her on that.

Grumbling about the 111 bus

A Chelsea advocacy group said two construction projects on the Mystic Bridge and another on the North Washington Street Bridge are causing unacceptable delays on the 111 bus that runs between Revere and Haymarket.

During a public comment period at the Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting on Monday, Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of Green Roots, read from letters she and others in Chelsea have received from MBTA officials on efforts to address delays that could run as long as 45 minutes during the peak construction period in July 2019.

“This is yet another example of how Chelsea riders’ civil rights are being violated,” she said, noting that most of the people who ride the bus have low incomes.

Bongiovanni, looking directly at Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, said she was baffled as to why the secretary would not meet with her organization to discuss the situation. She also jumped on T General Manager Luis Ramirez’s suggestion that riders on the 111 bus should seek out alternative ways to reach their destinations, including taking the commuter rail, the Silver Line 3 bus to the airport and then on to south Station, or walking and biking.

“Will you be prepared when we organize our members to walk or bike over the Mystic Bridge?” she asked.

Pollack: No worries on West Station

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack downplayed the concerns of transit advocates worried that decisions on the reconstruction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and the timetable for the proposed West Station in the Allston area are being made behind closed doors.

A host of transit advocates on Monday pressed the Department of Transportation to build West Station early on in the construction process and adopt an at-grade construction approach with the Turnpike. Several said the task force representing stakeholders in the process hasn’t met since November and urged Pollack to keep the group informed of what’s going on.

“There’s nothing that’s been happening that folks need to worry about. In fact, because of the number and thoughtfulness of the comments, we have taken some time to go through them and figure out what the next steps will be,” she said. “As I said at the meeting, we’ll reconvene the task force and begin working with them. But the extra time since the certificate came out is not because we are forging ahead with some decision that’s been made but rather trying to figure out how to address some very thoughtful and very legitimate issues that were addressed in the public process.”

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Bruce Mohl

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About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The Department of Transportation’s fiscal 2019 budget, approved by the MassDOT board on Monday, included $88 million for regional transit authorities. That’s the amount the Senate included in its budget and $8 million more than the governor recommended. ….Lawmakers, mayors, and local residents urged the Fiscal and Management Control Board to add a later train from Boston to Middleborough/Lakeville so visitors to Boston could attend a Red Sox game or a play and not have to leave early to catch a train. …Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said 1,500 discarded tires were picked up recently along Route 140 in the New Bedford area. … A report on the progress of the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford said the contractor has requested 21 change orders and 11 have been denied. The report also said 31 T employees are overseeing the project, a big increase over the skeletal staff that bird-dogged the project when the cost ballooned from $2 billion to $3 billion.