Metro Transit cuts service to dozens of bus lines, citing driver shortage

Three people stand with signs
Protestors at the Boost the Bus rally outside of the Metro Transit headquarters in Downtown Minneapolis on Dec.1.
Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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By Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

Metro Transit is scaling back bus service starting Saturday, reducing how frequently dozens of lines travel on core routes across the system as it struggles to find drivers.

Several buses will travel less often than they have in the past, and two routes will be completely suspended as part of the reduction. The changes will be implemented for three months; Metro Transit posts quarterly schedules and has not said what will happen to the affected routes after that. 

The cuts by the Twin Cities public transportation provider are the latest in a series that began as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020. They come as Metro Transit faces a shortage of 300 bus drivers, and at a time when the agency was hoping to ramp up operations as the pandemic eased. 

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Transit advocates protested outside Metro Transit’s Minneapolis headquarters Thursday evening, calling on the agency to improve its core services for the riders who depend on it most—disproportionately people of color. Riders say Metro Transit also should improve security on the routes. 

Metro Transit wants to increase the frequency of bus routes as soon as possible, but that could be months away, said Adam Harrington, Metro Transit’s director of service development.  

“We need to see demonstrated stability before we overpromise on that front,” he said. 

Harrington told Sahan Journal that current ridership and employment trends put the agency in a “bad spot.” Metro Transit is part of the Metropolitan Council and is funded largely by a combination of state and federal money; fares cover about one third of the agency’s budget. 

“Ridership is starting to come back and we have to reduce at the same time. I just want to acknowledge that’s the reality, and we know it,” Harrington said

More cuts

The cuts starting Saturday will reduce service across the board (new schedules for affected routes are available here). Service during off-peak hours for frequently used buses like the Route 4 that connects Bloomington to St. Anthony through downtown, northeast, and south Minneapolis will drop from arriving every 15 minutes to arriving every 30 minutes. The Orange Line, which serves the Interstate 35W South corridor from downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville, will also drop from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes. 

Overall, 56 routes are being altered for the winter quarter. Several are core routes that will see frequency drop significantly, especially outside of rush hour—6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Route 94, connecting downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, will drop from arriving every 20 minutes during rush hour and every 30 minutes otherwise to every half hour during rush hour and every hour during off-peak times. 

Route 87 links downtown St. Paul to Roseville through the North End and Falcon Heights; its service will drop from every 30 minutes to once an hour outside of rush hour. Route 23 from Uptown Minneapolis to St.Paul’s Ford Parkway is decreasing to one run per hour during off-peak times; it originally arrived every half hour. 

Reflecting the contradictory pressures public transit faces in the Twin Cities, these cuts begin the same day Metro Transit is debuting its latest frequent-service route, the D Line bus rapid transit. The D Line will connect Brooklyn Center to the Mall of America through north and south Minneapolis. 

After initial COVID-related transit reductions in 2020, Metro Transit cut service last December, and again in March and August 2022. While those cuts were targeted at less popular routes that had reliable alternative routes, the latest batch applied throughout the system. 

“We weren’t able to do that this time because we’ve already been reducing,” Harrington said. 

Despite reductions, ridership is starting to rebound on bus and train routes, with 20 percent more rides through October 2022 than in 2021. The system is now averaging 117,000 rides each weekday. 

Metro Transit officials said they’re trying to ensure that service will be reliable even if buses are arriving less frequently than riders and transit advocates would like.

The cuts disproportionately impact people of color. Riders of color have been more likely to continue using Metro Transit since the pandemic. In 2021, people of color made up 55 percent of users on core bus routes and the light rail compared to 50 percent in 2016, according to a Metropolitan Council survey of 4,000 transit riders. 

The transit system is also now more economically segregated than it was before the pandemic: riders who earn less money are more likely to continue riding public transportation versus riders who make more money. Forty percent of Metro Transit riders who earn less than $60,000 per year continue to use its services today, while 24 percent of customers who earn more continue riding transit. 

The reductions also hurt the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Emissions from transportation, which disproportionately impact communities of color, have fallen seven percent in Minnesota since 2005, a relatively low amount compared to the 30 percent reduction seen in electricity generation. 

Operator shortage

It’s no secret that Metro Transit is hampered by a shortage of bus and train operators. Advertisements recruiting operators are everywhere: on buses, on the jumbotrons at sports games, online, in print media, and on the radio—including Somali and Spanish language stations.  

The agency needs about 70 more bus drivers and 40 more train operators to fully support the service levels it provided before the December 3 cuts. It’s 300 bus operators short of a budgeted total of 1,400. 

Metro Transit thought there would be a resurgence of both riders and driver applicants as the pandemic eased and enhanced unemployment benefits dropped in fall 2021. Instead, normal staff attrition and retirements continued, and very few new drivers were hired. 

Minnesota’s unemployment rate is 2.1 percent, one of the lowest in the country, posing another challenge to the agency. 

The agency was already dealing with an operator shortage before the pandemic. It has been fervently recruiting new workers since the fall of 2021. In October, Metro Transit reached a new agreement with the Amalgamated Transit Union, the union representing its employees, that increased the base wage to $26 per hour, and added signing bonuses of up to $5,000 for new hires. Current employers now can receive a referral bonus for recommending new hires. 

Metro Transit also no longer requires a high school diploma for drivers. Mike Pal, the agency’s deputy chief operating officer, said it was often a hassle for immigrants to track down school records from their home countries. It’s now paying applicants to get their commercial driver’s license, a program that’s unique in the country, Pal said. 

Since the agency started offering better pay and signing bonuses, attendance at hiring events has increased substantially, Pal said. Training a bus driver takes almost three months, so it will take time for any improvements to become apparent, Metro Transit officials said.

‘Somalis get in this place and move up’ 

Metro Transit bus driver Abdullahi Egal likes his job. The 18-year veteran is a social guy who loves the diverse crowds who board his bus—Route 5, which will be reduced in frequency as the D Line from Brooklyn Center to the Mall of America replaces most of the route starting Saturday. 

 He likes the night shift: “After 9 o’clock, the city is very quiet.”

The 60-year-old said his Metro Transit job helped him raise a family and put his children through college. Abdullahi immigrated to San Diego and, in 1994, was part of the second wave of Somalis who moved to Minnesota 

He completed a masters degree in engineering in 2004, but struggled to find work that paid well. A friend who worked for Metro Transit told him the pay was solid, the benefits were good, and the agency was in need of drivers. Within days of applying, Abdullahi was hired. 

He’s proud of his safety record, and has three chevrons on his uniform that each signifies five years without an accident. He’d like to hit 20 years of safe driving.

Abdullahi said Metro Transit is family-oriented, and has always made sure he can make his daily prayers. He encourages Somali people he knows with commercial drivers licenses to drive buses instead of driving trucks, citing the proximity to home and the solid benefits from the union job. In the past, he’s joined other operators to discuss driving for Metro Transit on Somali radio. 

“Somalis get in this place and they move up,” Abdullahi said. 

More to be done

Everyday transit riders like Lolly Whitebird are used to service reductions by now. Whitebird rides the light rail, which has dropped in frequency from every 10 minutes, to 12 minutes, to 15 minutes since the pandemic began. For her, it’s meant more time waiting and less confidence that Metro Transit will get her where she needs to be, when she wants to go. 

Whitebird lives in St. Paul, and takes the Green Line to work. She’s taken the train for years, and said service has declined since the pandemic, causing her to walk more and worry about her safety at the train stations.  

“It’s hard to get places,” she said, adding that she’d like more frequent light rail service and later operating hours. 

Move Minnesota, a nonprofit that advocates for reliable public transportation, believes Metro Transit can try harder. 

”Driver availability is not the only factor that impacts service,” said the group’s executive director, Sam Rockwell. “It just doesn’t feel like Metro Transit is using all the tools.” 

There is a nationwide labor shortage affecting transit agencies, Rockwell said. But, he said, Metro Transit should be doing more to make sure rides are as efficient and enjoyable as possible. That means pushing for more signal priority at intersections that allows buses to use technology to trigger green lights, and fighting for more bus-only lanes throughout the region. 

Move Minnesota’s “Boost the Bus” campaign hosted a rally outside Metro Transit headquarters in Minneapolis on December 1. It wants to see robust service when the labor shortage ends. 

About 40 people stood in the cold, singing, “I’m dreaming of a red bus lane,” to the tune of “White Christmas”, and called for increased transit funding from the state Legislature. Speakers from environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the youth-led Sunrise Movement spoke about the importance of reliable, fast mass transit to reduce emissions. 

“Investing in public transportation is key to climate justice,” said Hufsa Ahmed, a Macalester College student and organizer with Sunrise Movement Twin Cities. 

Increasing ridership will help break a negative feedback loop for public transit in the Twin Cities, Rockwell said. Less frequent and reliable service means fewer riders, which leads to increased crime and bad behavior on trains that makes the experience worse for everyone. Attracting more riders will make people feel safer, Rockwell said. 

Metro Transit’s Harrington said rapid bus and light rail lines already use signal priority, but acknowledged that the agency could be doing more to make its work with cities, counties, and the state visible. Still, he maintains that 50 more drivers would do more to make riders’ experiences better than any other changes. The agency is going full-court press on its strategy to hire more operators, he said.