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Fear of getting assaulted, drug use are factors in Denver area's regional transportation driver shortage

Bruce Finley, The Denver Post on

Published in News & Features

Robert Pumphrey pulled his Regional Transportation District bus into the Westminster, Colo., public transit station earlier this month, got out and faced a belligerent man who head-butted Pumphrey and punched him in the face.

An ambulance took Pumphrey, 68, to a hospital for treatment. His eye and the side of his face swollen, he was driving again three days later but wondered whether the attacker might return — “the first thing on my mind,” Pumphrey said during a break, ruling out retirement. “I’m a senior citizen. But in this day and age, you’ve got to keep working to make a living.”

In January, a Regional Transportation District driver at the end of her Colfax Avenue route went to the back of her bus to roust a rider who seemed to have fallen asleep, standard protocol. He popped up and assaulted her, leaving her bruised with broken ribs. She, too, was planning to keep driving after completing physical therapy.

As RTD struggles to fill its openings for bus and light rail drivers, violence and illegal drug use on public transit create an obstacle to attracting and retaining employees, despite wages that allow a driver to earn more than $80,000 a year.

“Would you want to work for an agency where, as an operator, you have to smell meth on your train? People have a choice in where to work. Nobody wants to work where they might be assaulted and have to smell meth,” RTD board member Paul Rosenthal said, referring to a bus driver who’d been exposed to drug fumes and needed medical treatment for headaches.

The violence targeting drivers “makes it difficult, a deterrent” in recruitment and retention, Rosenthal said.

 

RTD’s bus driver vacancy rate remains around 16% and, for light rail operators, 21%. RTD officials said they’ve budgeted for 850 full-time bus drivers and that 706 were working, with 50 in training. For light rail, RTD needs 200 operators and has 158. For commuter rail with 30 budgeted engineer positions, 26 were filled.

RTD lost 368 bus drivers and train operators in 2022 and 2023, agency data shows, including 63 retirements.

Shortages affect service

The shortages of bus drivers and rail operators for years have impeded RTD efforts to ensure reliable service, let alone increase the frequency of service. Maintenance disruptions this summer will reduce ride frequency on key routes, but RTD officials have said that due to the shortage of bus drivers, they’d be hard-pressed to provide temporary bus “bridge” shuttles to help riders reach their destinations.

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