SAN JOSE -- Wait times are getting longer for bus riders in Santa Clara County just as bus ridership is rebounding after the pandemic.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority says it's because a nationwide shortage of bus drivers is hitting here at home. The agency is trying to attract more people to get behind the wheel.
It takes a lot to turn a car driver into a bus driver, but that's exactly why Cesar Gonzalez does what he does.
"Not only are you controlling a big heavy vehicle, but you're transporting the most important thing: people," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is a 24-year veteran of the VTA and a top bus-driver trainer. He's often the first person to take the agency's newest recruits out on the road.
It is part of a nine-week bus driver boot camp that gives newcomers like Jose Buenrostro, Jr. the skills they need to safely steer a 40-foot-long, 30,000 pound coach through Silicon Valley traffic.
"I love it when drivers come up to me and say because of you, I am here," Gonzalez said.
The need for more drivers is nearing a crisis. The VTA currently has a shortage of up to 70 drivers.
The impact is on riders like Eliseo Guillen, who find out the hard way that some bus routes don't have enough drivers. Wait times on those routes have doubled.
"This morning I had to wait half an hour for a bus," Eliseo Guillen, who said the normal wait is 15 minutes.
Guillen said he got a notification on his VTA app that some bus routes are running behind. The agency is now trying to recruit and train as many drivers as possible.
But even though pay and benefits are good and there's room for advancement within the agency, recruiting is difficult, partly because being a bus driver is not an easy job.
"You're dealing with a large segment of the population, a varied section of the population, and you never know what you're going to get. It can be very challenging in a public-facing job," said VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler-Ross.
As it turns out, bus drivers themselves are some of the agency's best recruiters. Cesar knows that firsthand.
As a teenager who rode the bus every day, he was encouraged to join the ranks by a kind, long-time driver named Art Peña, who was on Gonzalez' school route.
Because of Pena, Cesar joined up as a 19-year-old and gradually rose through the ranks.
Mr. Peña passed away from cancer in 2004, but his impact on Cesar and the agency can been seen to this day.
"The way he spoke to people was welcoming. Like, 'Come in, come to the bus.' Then I kind of saw myself doing it," Gonzalez said.
The tradition of drivers recruiting new drivers continues to this day.
Last year, Buenrostro, Jr. was a security guard assigned to patrol VTA bus yards when he met some drivers who encouraged him to join.
"They told me it was a great opportunity for me, that I'm young and it could help take me and my son further," said Buenrostro, Jr.
VTA trainees start at around $22 an hour with 5% increases every six months. Drivers can also earn extra pay by working overtime hours.
For Buenrostro, the skills like pulling up close to a curb for the passenger's ease of entry are being sharpened, all under Gonzalez's watchful eye.
Now, both trainer and trainee are looking down the road, performing a service while providing for themselves.
For more information on becoming a bus operator for the VTA and other job openings, visit the agency's website.
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