Graham Kilmer

MCTS Missed 7,487 Service Hours in 2021

Staff shortage stressing bus system, problem of unmet service hours continuing in 2022.

By - Mar 7th, 2022 07:25 pm
MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Milwaukee County Transit System missed thousands of hours of transit service in 2021 because of an ongoing staffing shortage, and it’s on track to miss even more in 2022.

The transit system missed 0.56% of all transit service budgeted for last year. While this is a small percentage relative to the 99.44% of budgeted service they did provide, it translates to thousands of hours of buses that were scheduled to run, but never made it out. Statistics requested by Urban Milwaukee show MCTS missed 7,487.2 hours of scheduled bus service in 2021.

The problem has continued into this year. So far, the system has been unable to staff approximately 0.64% of service hours, or 716 hours, in 2022.

In June 2021, MCTS told Urban Milwaukee it had been unable to provide approximately 0.4% of scheduled service. At that point in the year, that figure translated to approximately 2,400 service hours. The problem grew worse as the year went on.

The staffing shortage MCTS faces is not unique to the region. Transit systems around the country are facing similar challenges.

Currently, the transit system has 708 active bus operators. At the start of the year it had 716 bus operators. During that time, it has hired 36 new operators. 

“We have classes running year-round almost continually,” a spokesperson for MCTS told Urban Milwaukee. “The latest class will graduate in mid-March after completing six weeks of training and will begin operating buses.”

The transit system has offered four-figure sign-on bonuses for new drivers, and has tripled the advertising budget for job offerings.

But it’s the attrition rate among active operators that has made stable staffing levels so difficult to maintain. The system hired more than 130 bus operators in 2021, and yet it finds itself no closer to a fully staffed system.

At the beginning of 2022, MCTS announced it was temporarily suspending the system’s Freeway Flyer service, which provides service between the suburbs and downtown Milwaukee. Ridership on these routes is still 90% lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to MCTS.

Originally, the service was supposed to return in March. But, now, MCTS says the suspension of all but one Freeway Flyer will continue. No date was given for their return this time.

The first indication that chronic understaffing was affecting MCTS service was in June 2021, when MCTS decided it would not be able to provide shuttle service for Summerfest. At the time, MCTS Managing Director Dan Boehm said the agency was faced with “a perfect storm of challenges,” which included staffing, a lack of extra buses and the festival being moved to the fall when MCTS sees peak ridership.

The shortage of staff makes the already difficult job of being a bus operator that much more stressful as drivers are faced with forced overtime and difficult schedules that can see them working seven days in a row.

Business as usual for bus operators in Milwaukee has produced an unsustainable rate of attrition.

In 2021, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 998, Donnell Shorter lamented the state of affairs: “At some point it became a job and not a career.”

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