ALBANY — If CDTA riders felt a disturbance in The Force at lunchtime Friday, no worries … that was just me at the wheel of a 28,000-pound bus, releasing the parking brake and starting to roll.
I actually was a better bus driver than I expected — until it came time to stop.
We can laugh about it now, since I didn’t leave any scratches or dents on the half-million-dollar bus, but air brakes on a big vehicle take some practice.
Talking me through the process was Juan Ovalle, safety and training supervisor for CDTA. He stood beside me and dozens of prospective bus operators Friday as one by one we drove through the parking lot at the agency’s Albany headquarters during a job fair.
The Capital District Transportation Authority is struggling with the tight labor market just as other employers are, but with the added hurdle that it needs people with specialized skills to drive and maintain its buses.
So part of the job fair was designed to reassure people that they could do the work.
In the garage, the maintenance department walked prospective technicians through their classroom, which has actual or replica pieces of everything from the air brake system to the 6.7-liter Cummins diesel engine that powers an electric hybrid bus.
Outside in the lot were the test drives.
New bus operators go through extensive training before they start hauling passengers, then drive their first routes with a trainer at their side. The chance to drive a bus around on CDTA property Friday was part of the process of reassuring prospective drivers that they could get through that process.
If they currently drive trucks for a living, it’s not terribly different.
If they drive a Subaru and write newspaper stories, it’s hugely different — but not to be feared.
WAIT TO TURN
I wasn’t looking to drive a bus for a living. I know of only one journalist who went to work for CDTA, and she’s not a bus operator, either.
But who could pass up a chance to try it for a few minutes?
The steering on my 2019 Gillig bus is electronic, amazingly light and responsive considering that it controls a 14-ton vehicle.
Remember you’re sitting several feet ahead of the front wheels, Ovalle says, standing close enough to grab the steering wheel if I forget. You start the turn as you pass the corner, not as you approach it. If you arc into the turn like you’re driving a car, the rear wheels of the bus will jump the curb.
There’s no curb in the parking lot where I’m driving. So I pretend a sewer grate is a curb — no harm if I hit it. But with Ovalle’s coaching, I miss it.
If I were serious about a career change, he or one of the other six CDTA trainers would have me weave the 40-foot bus forward and backward through a serpentine path of traffic cones long before I carried my first paying passenger.
Then they’d have me do it with a 60-foot articulated bus.
LEARN BY DOING
Walking through the sprawling classroom space, CDTA Director of Maintenance Dave Williams showed off the scaled-down version of the double doors in the rear of a bus. Technicians who don’t know how to fix them will learn on these, and then their instructors will sabotage some part of the setup so the trainee can troubleshoot and fix it.
As with many forms of repair, knowing how to use the tool is often less important than knowing where to use it. The process is easier now with computerized diagnostic tools but experience gained over time is still critical.
Maintenance personnel without experience start at CDTA doing the most basic tasks but can progress to higher grades of responsibility and pay by assisting and learning from their senior colleagues, and through training in the classroom.
The top level of CDTA technicians could rebuild a transmission, Williams said, but probably wouldn’t — it would take the bus off the road for too long. Instead, they’d swap in a unit that had been rebuilt by a vendor.
EASY ON THE BRAKES
I make little use of the accelerator in my short stint as a bus driver — just taking my foot off the brake puts the bus at a brisk walking pace. There’s an 8.3-liter engine at the other end of the drivetrain.
This is when I learn about air brakes.
I tap them — nothing.
Tap them harder — nothing.
I push my foot all the way down and the bus jerks to an immediate halt, throwing Ovalle off balance.
I imagine he’s seen a lot worse from first-timers. He tells me how to do it right, and allows that it takes a little practice to get right.
Ovalle shows me how to make the front end of the bus kneel and open the door for passengers, both of which are an easy flick of a switch, and hit the parking brake, which takes a firm hand.
All of these details are fairly straightforward, even the brakes.
More important is using them in real-world conditions while keeping the bus, its passengers and everyone else on the road safe.
That’s the focus of all the training CDTA gives its drivers, said Rich Nasso, manager of safety and training.
And it works, he said: Bus operator candidates who have completed training during his tenure have had a 99.5% passing rate on their state licensing exam.
One of the two drivers who failed made a judgment call that Nasso said could have gone either way but the state inspector opted to flunk her; she passed the retest.
Nasso started at CDTA’s entry level in the early 1990s, cleaning buses, and progressed up through the ranks over 28 years. He never was a bus operator, but he took the full training and rode the routes as a passenger so he could see what worked and what was needed.
CDTA advertises for drivers with commercial experience but takes on novices as well. They don’t need to unlearn truck-driving skills and habits.
After I step out of the bus, a couple of people ask if I want to fill out an application to become a bus operator.
When I was a 5-year-old kid, I wanted nothing more than to be a subway motorman in The Bronx. When I was a 20-year-old kid taking, um, a gap year from college, I rode the subway for 10 hours straight and came away with my ears ringing and the taste of steel dust in my mouth. Any traces of the old dream died that day.
I imagine driving a bus is another job that’s great except when it isn’t.
You get out of the office and into the community. You’re filling a vital role, getting people to work so they can earn a living or getting them to recreation so they can enjoy the living they earn. If you’re driving for CDTA, you get $19.85 an hour during eight weeks of free training, and can advance to as much as $28.35 an hour with seniority. And it’s a union job with good benefits including pension.
You also have to sit in one position for 45 minutes at a time all day, and are at risk for aches and pains as a result. You receive an unfair amount of stress from passengers annoyed at delays or bad weather or schedule changes or a whole universe of things beyond your control. And you need a bit of zen to thread the huge vehicle through tight spaces as other motorists run interference on you.
So do I want to fill out an application?
Buses are getting more sophisticated with each passing year … I ask my would-be colleagues at CDTA to give me a call when the next generation of air brakes comes into service.
EYES ON THE FUTURE
CDTA is somewhat in flux 18 months after COVID-19 reached its service area: It maintained its staff with no layoffs as ridership plunged in the spring of 2020, thanks to federal relief funding.
But ridership has not fully bounced back — it’s still running about 40% below what once was normal, and there’s little to be done that can do to boost it.
CEO Carm Basile said CDTA may never fully regain pre-pandemic passenger levels, which in 2019 peaked at 1.5 million for the month of October.
Students from elementary school through college need to start riding again, and more importantly, commuters, he said.
Meanwhile, some CDTA employees quit for the same reasons so many other Americans dropped out of the workforce, particularly the need to care for children at home.
Still, the agency moves forward.
It took applications from 75 potential employees in front of the garage on Friday, while inside contractors worked in the pit they’d hacked in the floor, building foundations for the supersized lifts that will hoist the 60-foot articulated buses up for service. Out in back, additional parking bays were being constructed.
The trillion-dollar infrastructure bill the U.S. Senate passed earlier this month contains $114 million for CDTA and offers a shot at millions more for its Bus Rapid Transit lines, and to buy more all-electric buses.
Basile, alas, does not have a crystal ball. He doesn’t know what’s on the other side of the pandemic, except that CDTA buses still will be rolling along when we get there.
“We’re changing,” he said. “Some people have given up — no give-up here, not a factor. Not full speed ahead, but different. You look around, you see bikes, you see scooters, you see electrics, you see trolleys, you see different ways to work in the community. Our role is changing.
“So I guess we’re embracing a changing role, a role that in some ways is still to be defined. This belongs to the community, this company, and we want to be part of it.”