Columnists, Jon Caldara, Transit, Transportation, Uncategorized

Caldara: RTD’s driver shortage makes the case for more competition

The Regional Transportation District (RTD) has a severe driver shortage. The result has been service cuts, leaving passengers waiting at bus and rail stops wondering when or if their ride might appear.

At least stranded passengers can pass the time playing the “would you rather” game: Would you rather be stuck at a bus stop not knowing when you might make it to work or be trapped in a broken airport A-train not knowing if you’ll make your flight?

I know. That’s not a fair question. Thanks to RTD’s colossal failures there was a time you could have had both.

Granted, RTD isn’t the only employer in Denver having a hard time retaining employees in this over-heated market. If only we could have kept those glorious tepid economic days of the Obama years. But there is more than just a hot jobs market operating here.

I was the chairman of the RTD board of directors a lifetime ago in the late 1990s, so I know a little about what I’m talking about. First, I have to say RTD’s bus drivers are some the best in the nation.

It’s not an easy job hauling human cargo around and still being polite and professional. Over time, the gravitational pull is toward acting like rude New York City bus drivers. But RTD’s drivers still see passengers as people. That’s partly because Denver hasn’t yet turned so big-city that we all treat each other like a Seinfeld episode. Partly it’s because RTD hires and trains drivers well.

Competition helps. In fact, more competition might solve their driver shortage problem. (Warning, wonky policy stuff ahead, but worth pushing through.)

By law, RTD has to contract out half of its fixed-route bus service to private companies. This means half the empty buses you see lumbering around are not operated by RTD but by companies that have competed and won a contract to operate that portion of the service.

Keep in mind these are the buses RTD owns, running on the same routes on the same time schedules RTD draws up. But the savings compared to running them by RTD’s in-house, unionized operations is up to 40%.

How? Well, first the private contractors do pay their workers a little less, but that’s only a small part of the savings. The real savings come by not having to follow the RTD in-house union’s “work rules.”

For instance, when an in-house union RTD driver brings his bus back to the garage at the end of his workday, a different union worker goes in to clean it up. If he sees that a reading lamp is broken, he’ll write out a work order for yet another union worker to come in and change the bulb.

In the private contractor’s garage, the driver himself might clean up his own bus and replace the light bulb and then go work in the dispatch center or sweep the floor.

The massive handicap not suffered by private operators is the union requirement to hire mostly full-time workers. Transit operations are heavy during the peak commuting hours of morning and evening drive time, but pretty slow mid-day. That’s why RTD union contracts have required pool tables in the drivers’ lounges. What’s a driver to do to pass the time between peak times?

By contrast, the private operators can hire part-time workers who can fit in better with the double-humped time schedule of drive time. Not many pool tables in the private contractor’s shops.

As far as RTD’s shortage of rail operators, well that’s a failure of standing up to their union to begin with. When RTD was toying with the disastrous idea of unleashing rail on Denver, it looked at a completely driverless system. You’ve been on a driverless train at DIA. The city of Lille in France has had a city-wide driverless rail system since 1983, running trains as often as every 66 seconds during peak periods.

But the union’s political pressure steered RTD from that kind of driverless system for Denver. Something to think about as your RTD train fails to arrive thanks to the driver shortage.

If RTD put passengers and taxpayers first it would do what most of Europe does and contract out the other 50% of fix-route bus service, as well as all their rail operations. Competition works.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.

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