Decision awaited on Pa. transit drivers' long shifts
Pennsylvania's two largest transit agencies are waiting for a PennDOT decision on whether they can continue to ignore state law and keep drivers on the clock for marathon shifts of as long as 18 hours
“I'm very curious to see what decision they come back with,” said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Steve Palonis, who represents about 1,300 bus and light-rail drivers at Port Authority of Allegheny County.
The Tribune-Review reported in January that drivers with Port Authority and Philadelphia-based SEPTA routinely break a state law that prohibits them from driving more than 10 hours or working more than 15 hours in any capacity at a given time.
Port Authority drivers racked up big paydays through overtime last year: 79 of them made at least $80,000, and 14 pulled in $100,000 or more on base salaries of $52,000.
The agencies, along with the Pennsylvania Public Transit Association, petitioned PennDOT for a waiver to the law, arguing that they would have to spend millions of dollars to hire enough drivers to comply. PennDOT is expected to decide this month.
“The timing of these additional costs could hardly be worse,” Philadelphia attorney Robert S. Hawkins wrote in the petition.
Hawkins said Port Authority and SEPTA “do not have the financial resources to meet their current operational needs, much less a substantial increase in manpower.”
PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch estimated the extra manpower would cost cash-strapped transit agencies across the state a combined $10 million a year. That would take a bite out of two multiyear proposals before lawmakers to boost state transit funding, between $40 million and $183 million in the first year.
Hawkins said Port Authority would need to hire 24 drivers at a cost of almost $1.1 million a year and a one-time training cost of $96,000. Otherwise, it would need to reduce service by almost 3 percent, resulting in fewer trips, longer waits at bus stops and more crowded buses. Port Authority has a $372.1 million operating budget, he said.
SEPTA's problem would be worse. Hawkins said Philadelphia would need 135 drivers at a cost of $4.7 million a year and a one-time training cost of $600,000. Without new drivers, it would need to cut service by 4 percent, he said.
Enforcing the law would prevent employees “from exercising contractual rights to overtime created by unscheduled absences or other vacancies,” likely prompting workers to file grievances that could result in monetary settlements, Hawkins said.
Public safety does not factor into it, the agencies say.
Port Authority and SEPTA are “unaware of any evidence to suggest that the long-standing practice of exempting Pennsylvania transit agencies from hours-of-service regulations presents any substantial risk to public safety,” Hawkins said.
The attorney said transit drivers' busy shifts lower the risk of accidents caused by inattention and drowsiness. Unlike commercial drivers who drive long stretches on highways, transit drivers operate at lower speeds, stop frequently, interact often with supervisors and can “stretch, eat and refocus” at the end of each trip.
But sleep expert Timothy H. Monk, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, cautions: “It helps to get up and stretch your legs, but it's not going to refresh you like a proper break or sleep would.”
Monk said marathon shifts pose a risk that a driver will make a cognitive error, such as making a wrong turn or running a red light.
“The trouble of not getting enough sleep is that it diminishes our ability to pay attention to all the different things we need to pay attention to. If you're driving a bus in an urban environment, you have to pay attention to a lot of different things,” Monk said.
Troopers with the state police bureau's commercial vehicle safety division have expressed concerns about safety.
“We are confident that PennDOT will take our concerns into consideration,” state police spokeswoman Maria A. Finn said.
SEPTA said no accident reports indicated that long hours caused or factored into crashes during the past three years. The same held true at Port Authority during the past four years.
The transit agencies and the association want a three-year waiver to the law. During that time, the petition states, they would work with PennDOT and legislators to amend Pennsylvania's hours-of-service policy.
Hawkins recommends modeling a policy after one for rail transit drivers. The American Public Transportation Association allows agencies to schedule drivers to work up to 16 hours, with no more than 14 hours of actual work in that span. Drivers must rest for a minimum of 10 hours between shifts.
Port Authority drivers must take off at least eight hours between shifts. At SEPTA, drivers can work up to 18 hours in a single day or 30 hours during two days.
Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or email@example.com.