Contract extension helps Westmoreland County gear up to take over bus service next year
The Westmoreland County Transit Authority and the union that represents bus drivers and maintenance workers this week agreed to a three-month extension of a labor contract to allow the agency to complete the hiring of about 150 employees needed for the takeover of commuter bus and paratransit services starting Jan. 2.
Authority board members last month approved the dramatic change in agency operations that for decades required private vendors to operate the transit services. The move to in-house control means a major increase in the authority’s employee roster will be needed over the next six weeks.
“We’re getting through it,” authority Executive Director Alan Blahovec said.
The authority on Friday formally started the process to hire new drivers and maintenance staff. Employees who serve in those positions with National Express Transit, the Ohio-based private company that currently operates the authority’s buses and paratransit routes, will be first in line to transfer employment to the county agency, Blahovec said.
Extension of the union contract, which was set to expire at the end of December, will enable the authority to fill the jobs without the threat of a work stoppage.
“Our membership approved this. We’re willing to work with the transit authority to come to a good agreement everyone can live with,” said David Merrill, president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1735.
National Express was awarded a five-year $39.5 million contract last year to operate the authority’s bus service and paratransit programs, but that deal was terminated early amid ongoing issues that resulted in driver shortages and canceled bus routes.
Authority officials said the agency can operate the services itself for less money and estimated it will save about $2.3 million over the next three years by operating its own services.
Since early November, the authority hired a human resources director and a safety and training manager and expects to add a second staff accountant to its payroll in the coming weeks. Blahovec said the authority will purchase seven vehicles for route supervisors and maintenance staff and expects to have deals in place for insurance and other support staff in place ahead of the January takeover.
Officials said there are no immediate plans to increase fares or alter bus routes and paratransit services.
“There probably won’t be any changes until this transition is complete,” operators manager Meghan Yuhouse said.
The authority has a fleet of 41 buses for its 25 weekday and Saturday routes, including daily commuter runs to Pittsburgh and local service throughout the county.
The shared-ride Go Westmoreland paratransit service operates door-to-door, subsidized rides with the authority’s fleet of 50 vehicles for low-income and disabled residents as part of the county’s social service programs.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .