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PennDOT waiver lets transit drivers ditch state law's work time limits

| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 11:58 p.m.

PennDOT granted a waiver to transit agencies on Tuesday that allows drivers to ignore a state law preventing them from working marathon shifts.

The one-year waiver gives PennDOT and transit officials time to lobby legislators to change rules, PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said. It requires agencies to log drivers' hours and crashes and, after six months, to impose work time limits that are less stringent than existing law.

“Complying with the current regulations would have some serious service and financial impacts,” Waters-Trasatt said.

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch emphasized in a memorandum that “there is no apparent safety problem with the hours being worked by transit drivers across the state.”

Schoch said it's important to set limits for truckers and intercity bus drivers who travel long distances along highways, often at night with few breaks or interaction with others.

As for transit drivers, Schoch said: “Buses typically operate on shorter route segments, have frequent breaks (and) operate at lower speeds,” among other things.

Officials with Port Authority of Allegheny County and Philadelphia-based SEPTA told the Tribune-Review in January that drivers routinely break state law by driving more than 10 hours at a time, or working more than 15 hours at a time in any capacity.

Overtime helped 79 of Port Authority's 1,300 drivers make at least $80,000 last year on base salaries of $52,000, records show.

Port Authority, SEPTA and the Pennsylvania Public Transportation Association petitioned for the waiver, arguing they would need to spend millions of dollars to adhere to the law.

“We're currently reviewing PennDOT's decision,” Port Authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo said.

To comply with the law, Port Authority officials had said the agency would need to hire 24 drivers at an annual cost of $1.1 million, along with a one-time driver training cost of $96,000 — expenses it couldn't afford. Instead, the agency said it would trim service by 3 percent, resulting in fewer trips, longer waits and overcrowded buses.

Port Authority's financial problems are years-long, but officials said the agency finished the fiscal year on June 30 with a $22.4 million surplus that inflated its reserve fund to $51 million. That amounts to about 14 percent of its $366.6 million budget.

The state police Commercial Vehicle Safety Division had expressed safety concerns about the drivers' long hours. On Thursday, spokesman Trooper Adam Reed said the bureau has “no opinion on PennDOT's decision to waive the hours of service,” and that troopers will go along with it.

Agencies will be required in three months to keep records of hours worked by drivers, along with reports listing the times that crashes occurred and any contributing factors.

In six months, the state will begin limiting drivers from driving more than 18 hours in a single day or from being on duty for 30 hours over two days. Drivers will be required to go off the clock for at least eight hours between shifts.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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