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TRANSPORTATION

As RIPTA cuts back on bus service, CEO blames staffing crunch

An Oct. 12 job fair will offer information about jobs with the transit authority. “Our goal is to grow,” said Scott Avedisian.

An RIPTA bus in downtown Providence.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

PROVIDENCE – RIPTA’s CEO said Friday he was disappointed that the agency had to cut back on the frequency of service on about a third of its routes, but said they’re working to resolve the staffing crunch that’s at the root of the problem.

“Our goal is to grow,” said Scott Avedisian, citing initiatives like free beach buses and tourism industry-sponsored rides in Newport. “That type of growth shows our value to a community and our value to people. So to have to cut back on that is really disappointing.”

Avedisian spoke at a news conference at the agency’s Elmwood Avenue offices to explain RIPTA’s rationale for cutting service frequency on 19 of the agency’s 59 routes as of Oct. 22 – a move that the agency has described as temporary, but for which it has no set end date. Transit advocates said it’s a disheartening step back for an agency that should be expanding, not reducing, service.

Avedisian agreed. He urged people to attend an Oct. 12 job fair to learn about jobs at the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

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“You will be joining a group of really committed public servants,” Avedisian said.

The service reductions (which do not include eliminating any routes) were announced Thursday. A full listing of routes, and how much more time people will wait, is available on RIPTA’s website at https://www.ripta.com/servicechanges/.

The agency is currently down about 30 drivers, Avedisian said. Part of the problem was the pandemic made drivers retire earlier than they might otherwise have, but it also affected younger drivers who were concerned about the exposure to so many people, he said.

RIPTA is currently in negotiations with the Amalgamated Transit Union Division 618, which represents RIPTA drivers. Among the issues on the table: pay raises for drivers who start in the system. Paratransit drivers start at $16.45 an hour. From there they can move up to taking fixed routes, which start at $18.95 an hour.

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The ATU, meanwhile, argues that RIPTA overextended itself, biting off more than it could chew. Union reps have pushed back on the idea that drivers aren’t showing up to work.

Avedisian rejected the argument that RIPTA hadn’t adequately planned.

“We keep hearing from groups and communities that want more” service, Avedisian said. “So our goal is to continue to expand.”

It’s unclear when the transit agency will get back to the current amount of service; it takes at least a few weeks to get new drivers trained and in the system.

RIPTA officials declined to get deep into details about the ongoing negotiations, but Steven Colantuono, its chief legal counsel, said the agency would offer the best benefits and pay as it possibly could.

“I’m hopeful that we have a good working relationship now with our union, and we’re making good progress with the negotiations,” Colantuono said.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.