PennDOT may seek to end limits on drivers
By Tom Fontaine
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Public transit agencies across Pennsylvania would need to spend up to $10 million to comply with a law limiting how long their drivers can be behind the wheel each day, the state's top transportation official said.
PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said his agency might push to change the rules rather than force cash-strapped transit agencies to hire extra drivers to legally meet service demands. PennDOT doles out $1.2 billion a year to transit agencies.
“Obviously, safety is our No. 1 concern. But to this point in our research, we haven't been able to draw a conclusion that this is a public safety issue,” Schoch said, noting his agency hasn't linked transit crashes to driver fatigue.
The Tribune-Review reported in January that Port Authority of Allegheny County drivers routinely work shifts of up to 16 hours, violating a state law prohibiting them from driving more than 10 hours or working more than 15 hours in any capacity during a shift. Port Authority officials thought their drivers were exempt from the law, as did Philadelphia-based SEPTA.
Schoch said he is considering granting waivers or exemptions to allow drivers at Port Authority, SEPTA and other Pennsylvania transit agencies to exceed the hours-of-service restrictions. Similar waivers are in place in several other states, he said. PennDOT is evaluating transit crash data from the other states to determine whether fatigue-related crashes are a problem.
“That is certainly a concern to me,” State Police Lt. Raymond Cook, commander of the bureau's commercial-vehicle safety division, said of the possible waivers.
“There are tons of studies out there about the dangers of fatigued driving. Just because fatigue is not recorded in a crash report doesn't mean it wasn't a factor,” Cook said. “If I went on a trip to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, I'm going to be reluctant to get on a bus knowing that the driver might have been behind the wheel for 16 hours.”
Without a waiver or change in the law, Schoch said, “Transit agencies could be looking at spending an extra $7 million to $10 million to hire new drivers at a time when they are struggling to afford the growing costs of providing service and meeting their infrastructure needs.” His estimate covers first-year costs of hiring and training; it does not include future costs of salary and benefits for the additional drivers, nor the savings from reduced overtime.
Port Authority drivers benefit financially from the overtime. The agency paid 79 of its 1,300 drivers more than $80,000 in wages last year, with base salaries of about $52,000. Fourteen drivers made more than $100,000, records show.
Port Authority narrowly avoided a 35 percent service cut last year by obtaining $35 million in additional state and local funding, $25 million in worker concessions and $5 million through fare increases. Assistant General Manager Michael Cetra said officials don't expect operating deficits for the next two years, but a $15 million shortfall is anticipated in three years.
Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the agency estimates it would have to hire at least 20 additional drivers at a cost of about $1 million, plus several training instructors, if no waiver is granted.
“We're working closely with PennDOT and hoping to resolve this in the best manner possible,” Ritchie said.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Steve Palonis did not return calls. SEPTA did not comment.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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