On Your Side: MAX Transit delays, cancelations leave workers stranded, BJCTA responds

Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 9:44 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - We’re On Your Side digging deeper into delays and cancelations with Birmingham’s MAX Transit buses.

People who pay for the service every month tell us their buses show up late - or don’t show up at all - forcing them to be late to work, which puts their job and their paycheck at risk.

Lots of busy hands, loud machines, and dedicated people work behind the four walls of Workshops Empowerment Inc.

But getting to work? That’s the real challenge.

“I depend on the bus six days a week,” said Canaryl Provitt. “Every day they run, I depend on them.”

But for Provitt and his friend Taris Richardson at Workshops Inc., they say MAX Transit has been anything but dependable.

“November the third, I had to be at work at 7, and I couldn’t because there was no bus running,” said Richardson. And the next day, Friday, several other employees had the same issues: no 17 bus running that morning to get them to their jobs. “I had to come to work and get the van and pick them up from the bus station so they could get to work.”

When asked whether this was the first time that has happened, Richardson replied, “No, no...I’d say every now and then. Two or three times a month.”

But not having a means of transportation is just one of the many barriers Workshops Inc. employees face every day.

“Our mission is to serve people with disabilities and barriers to employment to reach their highest vocational potential,” said Workshops Inc. Director of Development and Marketing Gena Hyatt. “I mean, how must it feel when life already feels like everybody has turned the other way, for whatever reason, whatever life choices you may have made, some things that weren’t in your control...to not have reliable transportation, to not be able to get where you need to go.”

Provitt said he has had to wait three hours for a ride with MAX’s VIP bus, which is a door to door service for people who are ADA eligible.

It’s a service Provitt said he pays $80 a month for.

“I get frustrated and upset because I don’t think that’s right,” said Provitt. “And most companies don’t want to hear that you’re late because of the bus. I thank God for my job at Workshops and they understand what we have to go through.”

Provitt, Richardson, and Hyatt all said MAX Transit has told them the delayed or cancelled routes are because of driver shortages.

But without a fix, and fast, the consequences could be tragic.

“I think it’s going to take someone who doesn’t utilize the service having to stand on a bus route for two hours and wait on it. And see what that might feel like,” said Hyatt. “If you or I had to wait for two hours, I’d probably just call in to say, ‘You know what, I’m not going to be in today. And I might not be in tomorrow.’ But we are dealing with people in this economy that have to be employed.”

Richardson said he’s worried about what could happen if these delays continue.

“We have to survive. We need our job,” he said. “The way things are going now, the way this economy is going up. It’s going to be hard. There’s going to be a lot of people homeless or kicked out of their home. And I’m afraid that it might end up happening. And I’m one of them.”

The Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority said the 17 bus is one of the most popular routes.

They also said, while transit is growing for BJCTA, they are facing challenges recruiting bus operators and mechanics, citing shortages since the COVID pandemic coupled with the current flu season.

On average, BJCTA said 76 trips are missed per day out of over 2,000 total trips. That’s about 4% of trips missed of all routes.

But on average, the 17 bus doesn’t complete almost a third of its trips.

The BJCTA said they’re actively hiring. They said 20 drivers have been hired and are in the process of completing training.

Below is the BJCTA’s response to our questions:

1. First, can you please confirm the number of routes canceled or delayed on Friday, 11/4?

There are several routes affected by BJCTA’s bus operator shortages and changes since the COVID pandemic and the launch of the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT). Currently, BJCTA completes over 90% of its scheduled services per day. For example, on average 76 trips are missed per day out of over 2,000 total trips. Therefore, we are meeting most of our trips per day. However, Friday, 11/4, route 17 did run because we did not have a driver for the entire day. This is not a common practice and was an anomaly and especially for this route. In response to this issue, MAX is continuing to aggressively address the driver shortage and ways to supplement routes.

2. Please provide information for the number 17 bus specifically.

Unfortunately, there was not an operator available for the Friday, Nov. 4th run. As stated, this is not a common practice. On average, the 17 bus has 12 missed trips out of 37 total trips per day. Therefore, successfully completing over 67% of our scheduled bus trips. Generally, MAX covers this route and runs with at least one bus. We are working diligently to address this issue and other missed runs with supplemental services as described in question #4 below.

3. Can you please provide the reasoning behind the cancellation or delays for this day?

As previously stated, the industry as a whole is facing severe driver shortages. Therefore, along with the driver shortage, the flu season is upon us. Cancellations and delays exist due to the shortage of CDL operators and as a result of the COVID Pandemic and peaks in cold and flu season. All of this impacts our ability to meet some of our designated routes. However, MAX is addressing our operator shortage with an aggressive hiring campaign.

To address issues with bus 17 and other routes, MAX is currently taking the following steps:

  • Implementing an active hiring campaign. Currently, over 20 drivers have been hired and are in the process of completing training.
    • People interested in applying can come directly to the MAX Intermodal Office with the potential to be hired on-site if they meet the qualifications.
  • Since the 17 is one of our highest rider routes, BJCA is planning to supplement this route with OnDemand services and/or MAX Micro Transit; this route has also been identified as a route that will change with connections to the BRT which will enhance its schedule time and frequency
    • Via OnDemand Services to supplement some routes is scheduled to start in December. BJCTA is working to finalize the contract with Via on this Thursday and it is slated to go before the BJCTA Board of Directors on November 16th.
    • BRT Enhancement changes cannot take place until January due to a union requirement for operators to bid on their schedules in advance. Bids take place 3 times a year and January is the next scheduled time for operators to bid on any revised scheduling.
    • MAX is also establishing a “Riders Council” including riders and community advocates.
    • The council will be consulted for insight on potential route changes before they go into effect. If anyone is interested in the Riders Council, they can call our Customer Service Department for consideration.

4. Are there plans in place to make sure this issue is fixed by Monday or as soon as possible for riders?

Yes, but unfortunately, there is no quick fix to this industry challenge as explained above. We do plan to start with OnDemand Services as early as December to supplement major routes at peak times.

Other transit modes are currently under review for a longer-term solution, including the potential of a total system redesign later next year.

5. How and when were riders notified of the cancellation?

Cancellations are posted as a banner daily on the maxtransit.org site.

Riders can also access this information via our mystop app which can be found on our web page.

Cancellation information is also available via phone through our customer service line at 205.521.0101

6. What should riders do if they depend solely on these buses for transportation, yet the buses get canceled on short notice?

Riders can call customer service for specific missed runs and MAX will work to accommodate their situation.

7. In events such as these, are the new Xpress buses short-staffed? And if not, can their routes be diverted or added to?

MAX fixed route and the Birmingham Xpress (BX) are staffed from the same pool of operators. Yes, the BX has experienced some small delays as well. However, we usually have enough Operators to support the BX Corridor.

Also, due to the requirements of the federal grant, BX routes cannot be diverted. However, as stated above we are rolling out efficiencies from fixed routes to connect to the BX for several routes, including route 17. This route will experience a route enhancement to connect to the BRT at the East Transit Center and will not have to come all the way down to Central Station, this enhancement will help with missed trips and frequencies on this route.

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