January 26, 2023

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Top stories of 2022: The mounting costs of the EmX bus system

10 min read
In 2022 community members raised questions about the financial, environmental, and human costs of the EmX bus rapid transit system. Then a driver was attacked and a passenger was killed.
EMX for Springfield Station

Fifteen years ago, local agencies jumped on board an innovative experiment: Bus rapid transit designed for a small city.

[00:00:09] Randi Staudinger (LTD project manager): LTD was one of the first transit agencies in the country to implement a bus rapid transit system. That was in 2007 when we built the Franklin EmX corridor that connected Eugene Station to Springfield Station. In 2011, LTD expanded the bus rapid transit system and opened the Gateway EmX corridor, and that connected Springfield station up to the International Way area.

[00:00:32] And then finally in 2017, we opened the West Eugene EmX corridor, which everyone remembers, which connected the community all the way out west to Target and Walmart on West 11th. So together we have about 20 miles of a bus rapid transit system.

[00:00:45] Our bus rapid transit system, it’s been branded the EmX system, and it has dedicated bus lanes which allow our buses to provide continuous reliable service.

[00:00:54] John Q: Despite initial success on the Franklin corridor, the Gateway and West Eugene lines fell short of predicted ridership. Neighborhood leaders suspected LTD tried to prop up its EmX system in 2019 by eliminating neighborhood routes. They took a deep dive into LTD project documents and questioned the public engagement process. In March 2022:

[00:01:16] Jess Roshak (LTD Budget Committee member):  I was blindsided like everybody else by this this line that they did adequate public engagement and they don’t understand what we’re talking about, you know, ‘Everybody wanted this.’

[00:01:26] And so where I got passionate and involved was, just feeling like we were being lied to about the public engagement piece. And I’m particularly interested in that, because I have a feeling the same flavor of public engagement was done for (River Road EmX project) MovingAhead.

[00:01:42] John Q: When the city and LTD recommended River Road EmX in 2022, local opponents organized a recall election.

[00:01:50] Meta Maxwell (Recall Claire Syrett): If we are building things like this EmX and the MovingAhead, it’s major multi-hundred-million dollar infrastructure to accommodate buses that cannot be redirected. They require extra infrastructure to stop and start and the grants require that they maintain certain routes. So we’re taking the funds away from those other buses.

[00:02:18] John Q: Neighborhood leaders also learned about other hidden costs of keeping to those schedules: The human toll on bus operators and their families. In April:

[00:02:28] Jess Roshak: They are not appropriately staffed for this level of service and the people are leaving faster than they can be hired. They’re being put on the back burner by LTD beefing up administrative positions while cutting back on all the driver, customer service, and public safety positions.

[00:02:50] And so you’ve got a lot of unhappiness and overstretched people who are being asked to work six out of seven days a week and take on 12-hour shifts, or sometimes work shifts where they only have seven hours in between them. And it’s very, very stressful to be a bus driver at this point in time for LTD,

[00:03:10] There are a lot of demands being placed on the bus drivers. They’re not salaried, they’re hourly. And I had made the comment in the LTD budget meeting a couple of weeks ago that, there are $21.43-an-hour bus drivers being hired. And these are their most important employees that everything rides on the back of. And yet they are among the lowest 10% in pay at the district. They are making overtime for all the extra hours that they’re being called in and it’s good overtime, but I think that they are not happy because there’s no life balance. They’re being asked to do too much.

[00:03:48] John Q: During public comment at the April board meeting:

[00:03:52] John Gangl (LTD bus operator): My name is John Gangl, I’m a bus operator and ATU 757 representative, live in Eugene, Oregon, and I’m here to represent the bus operators. We’ve talked a lot about force cancels otherwise known as required to work. Our operators are definitely feeling a huge impact on force cancels and what they do to our lives. So I was going to give public testimony on what force cancels before the pandemic did to me.

[00:04:16] I got married in August of 2019. I’d used personal vacation days, floating holidays, strung together a period of time for my wedding. And the day I was supposed to pick up my sister and my best friend from the airport was a day where I was a coerced into working. I used the word ‘coerced’ because that was the only day I was going to work that week.

[00:04:36] I was called and asked to work. I said, no, a friendly supervisor called me from their cell phone. And let me know that, hey, they’re going to get you when you come in. If you call now, you can still get paid overtime. Otherwise it’s going to be straight time. So I called and accepted.

[00:04:53] When I was hired on in 2016, people were required to work so much, they could be forced to work three of their four days off in a pay period, giving them one day off every 13 days.

[00:05:06] The old contract language was ‘forced to work.’ You’re force canceled on your day off. The district has become so dependent on requiring people to work on their days off, they fought in the last contract to change the language to ‘required to work’, to make it sound more palatable.

[00:05:23] What this has done to our families and what this has done to us…We are not adequately staffed when people are forced to work on their days off, when our families are suffering, when we cannot be good partners and good parents.

[00:05:36] I just have to be able to put my family first. And that’s what we don’t have the opportunity to do, as bus operators.

[00:05:42] John Q: Also speaking at the April meeting:

[00:05:46] Bill Bradley (ATU Local 757): LTD has a habit of requiring their workers to perform on their scheduled day off. This was true pre-pandemic and it’s repeating itself post-pandemic.

[00:05:54] ATU has made significant efforts to remedy the situation over the years, and it has lessened. But when I sit through medical insurance reviews of our LTD group, I get very concerned. Our LTD workers and their families are showing us in our insurance claims that this work is taxing them to the breaking point.

[00:06:10] Severe and persistent mental illness ranges from 52 to 96 percent higher at LTD than in the general population. Substance abuse is 90 percent higher than the general population. COPD, congestive heart failure has a prevalence factor over a hundred percent when compared to general population. Stress is degrading the lives of our members and their families.

[00:06:31] Work must be done to ensure that they get their rest time to recuperate, feed their souls, and enjoy their families. That can only be done as staffing is increased to an optimal level that guarantees LTD’s workers their days off.

[00:06:43] John Q: In addition to scheduling demands, the EmX adds its own issues.

[00:06:49] Farley Craig (LTD EmX bus operator): We feel very limited in our ability to have any sort of say what’s going on on the bus. And I mean, I get it. I get that there’s been a real social change but as a bus driver, we are neither trained, nor do we have the ability to continuously police all the issues that are going on, on the bus while driving a 60-foot machine down the road.

[00:07:18] So we’ve had to just totally ignore what’s going on in the back of the bus and let the riders deal with it themselves, which is really unfortunate. Or make a stink and then almost chastised for it because there’s nothing that really LTD or Eugene can do that they want to do, because it just creates more problems.

[00:07:40] There’s a lot of situations where we don’t have any tools. And not only do we not have any tools, but we’re even, we’re at a detriment from the beginning because we have no ability to deal with these situations. And so it’s, it just makes for burnout so much quicker too.

[00:08:00] Mark Durbin (LTD EmX bus operator): The support issues for the drivers have kind of gone by the wayside. I’ve seen guns, I’ve seen all kinds of things. It makes you very nervous. We have a bus driver right now that is out and probably will never return ’cause she got attacked. And that’s even with the barrier. Somebody got angry enough to come after a girl and it’s caused significant mental issues for her that she’s not able to even return to driving.

[00:08:24] But we’ve had knives pulled, people stabbed… what the bus driver did was stop the bus and go back there trying to stop the situation and he got chastised and ridiculed for doing that, and put on a letter, ‘cause he was trying to stop someone from being harmed. And that’s LTD’s response to it. Their response is: You stay in the seat, never supposed to get out of the seat.

[00:08:49] We’ve had elderly gentlemen beat to a pulp on the bus. Bus driver is not to get out of the seat. That is what they instruct us: not to intercede, not to stop it, do nothing. Just call it in and stay in your seat.

[00:09:05] John Q: In November, the unthinkable happened. Springfield passenger Travis Sanders, age 69, was brutally assaulted on the EmX and later died.

[00:09:15] Lynda Tucker (LTD EmX bus operator): My understanding is there was a guy that tried to intervene and apparently he had two black eyes that damn near covered the full of his face and a big gash on his head. You know, he could have been hurt a lot worse than he was.

[00:09:26] And other assaults that have happened that aren’t even being brought to attention because they just get stuffed away. LTD doesn’t want the public to know, LTD doesn’t want it on the news. They don’t want it because they haven’t addressed them.

[00:09:39] You’re asking us to go out there every day, put ourselves at risk, every day, and you be so out of touch with the community and so out of touch and uncaring about the safety of both your riders and your drivers.

[00:09:54] Think about the fact that we’ve had a driver attacked, we’ve had a person killed on our bus, which the effects of that are enormous. It’s enormous. You have the victim’s family, you have the victims that witnessed that on the bus, my wife included.

[00:10:11] She has managed through a few shifts and a few others she hasn’t been able to get through. It comes in waves. She has yet to sit in the driver’s seat of an EmX again, I don’t know when that’ll happen, but…

[00:10:22] We have people that have to take, you know, 3, 4, 5, 6 buses a day to get to and from work, and now they’re like, ‘Nope, it’s too dangerous.’ We’ve had operators have discussions with people and they’re like, ‘Hey, my 41 bus will gets you there, but man, that EmX will get you there in a third of the time.’ And they’re like, ‘Nope. Not taking that EmX, it’s not safe.’ Or: ‘I have my kids, it’s not safe.’

[00:10:46] John Q: Even before the fatal assault, drivers warned the community that the EmX was not safe.

[00:10:53] Mark Durbin: I wouldn’t recommend any wife, mother or even a father to bring their children on past 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening on an EmX bus. It’s unsafe. You can say it any way you want, but it’s unsafe.

[00:11:08] And how do you supply the kind of security that would stop the issues that we have? How do you go about that? And right now LTD just doesn’t have any answers and it leaves us out there hanging to dry, which is, frustrating at least.

[00:11:25] And I wouldn’t recommend anybody riding it, especially the West 11th corridor at night. It’s just, it’s not safe and there’s no way to make it. And I’ve driven it. It’s not like I haven’t been out there myself. I have, and it’s concerning.

[00:12:42] Farley Craig: We’re losing drivers just because it’s become increasingly harder and harder to be a driver here. I mean, it’s, it’s just a revolving door.

[00:11:51] The mental health issue in Eugene, homelessness, and drug use has really fallen through the cracks and so that all of the mental illness and homelessness end up kind of falling on the bus drivers, and it’s been really frustrating to watch.

[00:12:08] I love the people that I work with. I absolutely love—It’s been the best people that I’ve ever worked with and I’ve really developed some really strong friendships and stuff, and it’s really hard to watch them struggle.

[00:12:23] Yeah. I love my job. I, I wish I could trust my job, I wish that I could feel that both the employer and the community have our backs.

[00:12:34] John Q: One of our top stories of 2022: The mounting costs of the EmX bus rapid transit system—the financial costs, the environmental costs, and now the human costs.

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