OCEAN CITY — While the critical shortage of municipal bus drivers to meet the demand eased somewhat this week, the shortage of Boardwalk tram drivers and conductors could be more acute.
Last week, Mayor Rick Meehan called a special meeting of the Transportation Committee to address the critical shortage of municipal bus drivers that have curtailed the department’s ability to fully deploy buses to meet the growing demand as the season ramps up. The meeting resulted in immediate action by the Mayor and Council, including increasing the pay rate for CDL-licensed bus drivers and solid waste department drivers from $15.60 to $19.89 per hour.
On Tuesday, the transportation committee had its regularly scheduled meeting and again discussed driver recruitment and deployment schedules and the news was a little better. Interim Transit Manager Steve Bartlett told the committee the department had moved closer this week to the target goal of 75 bus drivers.
Bartlett said there were 45 drivers active and on the schedule, with nine from the recruitment effort waiting on drug screen results and three more waiting for their applications to be submitted. In addition, the department is expecting at least six school bus drivers to come on board starting June 21. Bartlett said with the pending applications and drug screen results, along with help from school bus drivers, he felt better this week about reaching the target goal for this summer of 75.
“As of yesterday, we still stood at 63,” he said. “I feel confident about getting to that 75 target. The current drivers, with the pay hike, are willing to work more shifts.”
However, Bartlett said the news was not as positive on the Boardwalk tram driver and conductor front. The target for tram drivers and tram conductors is 22 for each. Bartlett said as of Tuesday, the recruiting efforts had resulted in less than half of the goals. As a result, he is running just five trams, with three deployed in the afternoon and two deployed during the evening hours. The five trams do overlap during the peak time in the evening.
“The tram division is not so good,” he said. “We lost a conductor yesterday. We’re down to 11 drivers and nine conductors. I’m only able to get five trams deployed on a daily basis and normally, I’d have eight at least.”
Council Secretary and committee member Tony DeLuca asked Bartlett for a recommendation on what could be done to reverse the situation.
“An increase in wages would help,” he said. “I just don’t think they’re out there. I’m just not sure they want to be out on the Boardwalk right now.”
Heretofore, the Boardwalk tram driver were not paid overtime. DeLuca said it could take out-of-the-box thinking to enhance tram driver and conductor recruitment.
“We need to do something,” he said. “What if we offered double-overtime pay just for this summer. We have to do something to create an incentive.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins questioned if the double-overtime suggestion would cover all in the transportation department.
“There would be ripple effects to that,” he said. “Who does it cover? Is it just the tram division?”
City Manager Doug Miller said the double-overtime option could create more issues than it solves across the city’s manpower ranks. For example, if a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol who already works 40 hours in the stand could be convinced to drive the Boardwalk tram for a shift or two a week at night, he or she could make considerably more than the regular tram drivers.
“Just say they work 40 hours on the beach,” he said. “If they drive for just one shift, they could make as much as $30 per hour for that one shift, while the loyal regular drivers are making $12 to $13 per hour. He’s going to have a morale problem.”
However, DeLuca said something had to be done to enhance tram driver and conductor recruitment with the peak summer season rapidly approaching.
“Trams are one of the true revenue generators,” he said. “It’s only going to get busier. We haven’t really seen the families yet. We have to do something.”
There has been some effort to look to other departments for support for the tram division. For example, beach patrol members who work during the day might have an interest in driving the trams as a second job, especially with the possibility of double-overtime. Meehan said that avenue should be explored deeper.
“Go back to the beach patrol or some of these other departments to see if there is any interest,” he said. “We only need five or six. That would make a big difference.”
When asked why three trams were being deployed during the day and just two at night, Bartlett explained it was largely to honor the $8 ride-all-day passes. Meehan suggested getting rid of the pass and deploying more trams at night when the demand is higher. Later Tuesday, the full council voted to end the $8 ride-all-day tram pass in order to provide flexibility in deploying the trams that are currently available.