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Transportation

Report finds Maryland transit agency suffers from under-staffing and high vacancy rate

A Maryland Transit Administration light rail car stops in downtown Baltimore. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Maryland Transit Administration, which provides bus and rail service in the Baltimore region, has fewer employees than systems of comparable size, and it has lower supervisor-to-employee ratios, according to a new report.

Transit advocates say those factors — combined with a steep rise in absenteeism since the start of the pandemic — help explain why transit service in Maryland’s largest city is widely considered to be unreliable.

The report, “Hiring and Retention Comparison with Peer Agencies and Surrounding Jurisdictions,” was prepared for the General Assembly by the MTA, which is part of the sprawling Maryland Department of Transportation. It compared the agency with service providers of similar size on a range of metrics, including salary, absenteeism, staffing ratios, vacancy rates and turnover.

Brian O’Malley, head of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said he was most struck by the agency’s low ratio of employees per “revenue vehicle” (a bus or rail car). MTA operates at a 1.6-to-1 ratio. Other systems of comparable size run at a 2.9-to-1 ratio, on average, nearly double Maryland’s.

In addition, MTA supervisors are responsible for far more people than supervisors elsewhere. Field supervisors in Bus Operations, for example, supervise 45 people on average; for “peer” agencies the ratio is one for every 29 workers.

“When you already are thin, in terms of operators-per-service-vehicle, and then you have absenteeism and vacancies, that shows up as ‘cut runs,’” O’Malley said, using the term for buses and trains that never arrive. “That’s what riders are experiencing.”

MTA’s vacancy rate is twice what it was in Fiscal Year 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Although nearly 95% of bus operator positions are filled, vacancies for Metro and Light Rail operators are high, at 13% and 12% respectively. Maintenance position vacancies are also high, at 9.9% for the bus division, 15.5% for Metro and 16.7% for Light Rail.

In its report, the agency said it has taken a number of steps to boost recruitment and retention. It has boosted salaries, safety protocols and scheduling, and it is strengthening its partnerships with area schools and the Baltimore Office of Employment and Development.

MTA pointed to an October survey which found that 96% of transit agencies in the nation are struggling to fill all their positions.

In its analysis, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance said the state’s hiring system essentially forces the agency to look outside for personnel. “The MTA uses a lot of consultants because the state’s Personnel Identification Number (PIN) system limits the number of positions that can be state employees,” the group said. “It costs the agency more to use consultants, but it is easier to hire a consultant than to get the state government to approve additional PINs.”

When consultants move on, the group added, they take their accumulated experience and expertise with them.

Baltimore area transit advocates hope the report will help the incoming Moore administration figure out how to improve transit reliability in the region. Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore) said she is optimistic the incoming administration of Gov,-elect Wes Moore (D) “will be a true partner in building the modern, sustainable, 21st century transit system that Maryland needs and deserves.”

Many advocates believe the region must control its own transit destiny. They look with envy to the D.C. region, where the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), an independent body, runs a bus and rail network that is significantly larger and more reliable than Baltimore’s.

Last week, the Baltimore Regional Transit Governance and Funding Workgroup released a set of draft recommendations. They included the creation of a Baltimore Regional Transit Commission and a “restructuring” of the formula used to fund locally operated transit systems.

The group also wants the new governor and state legislature to consider the creation of a Baltimore Regional Transit Authority, a body similar to WMATA.