San Jose commuters left waiting as VTA fleet falls apart
Passengers disembark from a bus near San Jose City Hall on Nov. 29. Riders have reported service interruptions as VTA workers continue to go without the parts they need to keep buses and trains operational. Photo by Brian Howey.

    San Jose resident Greg rides VTA bus route 73 to his job at a local winery. Last week, the bus never showed.

    “It’s frustrating when the bus doesn’t come because I have to go home to get my parents to take me to work,” Greg, who declined to share his last name, told San José Spotlight. “I couldn’t get to work on time.”

    Greg is one of several bus commuters fed up with VTA vehicles showing up late—or not at all—in recent weeks. Workers say they’re struggling to keep routes running because the public transit agency lacks the parts it needs to maintain its fleet of buses and light rail trains.

    While mechanics struggle to keep the buses in good standing, a recent inspection by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) shows the agency continues to run buses in various states of disrepair.

    During its annual inspection in September, CHP found VTA buses with major oil leaks, brake systems in need of adjustments and malfunctioning emergency exit handles, said Zac Bodle, an assistant business agent with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, VTA’s largest union.

    “Safety procedures are there for a reason,” Bodle told San José Spotlight. “VTA’s very lucky that we haven’t had (an accident).”

    The fleet required hundreds of more repairs than normal, resulting in a spike in service interruptions as buses were taken offline, according to a November presentation to the VTA board of directors.

    A VTA spokesperson said the agency doesn’t allow unsafe vehicles to go into service “under any circumstances.”

    “We have a highly-skilled maintenance workforce who are responsible for inspecting and performing any needed repairs,” the spokesperson told San José Spotlight. “All VTA employees are charged with the responsibility to provide safe, efficient service to the community.”

    Since at least February 2021, transit agency workers have raised concerns about the lack of parts needed to repair broken-down buses and trains, according to internal VTA emails obtained by San José Spotlight. Workers say the problem stems from VTA allowing many of its parts supplier contracts to lapse. San José Spotlight first reported these issues in April, but the problem persists.

    The public transit agency created a special committee to find solutions to the problem, Bodle said. But VTA still hasn’t been able to source enough parts, he said, and contracts continue to lapse, even after he and his colleagues have raised the issue numerous times at VTA board of directors meetings and agency safety briefings.

    The lapsed contracts have left VTA mechanics without basic parts like nuts, bolts and light bulbs. But workers have told Bodle they still feel pressured by superiors to greenlight buses and trains for public service they believe are unsafe to operate, he said.

    With no other options, mechanics have resorted to crafting their own fixes from pieces of broken parts, agency emails show, and cannibalizing broken down buses for parts.

    “They’ll go take a part on a bus that’s down and put it on the other bus, but then that bus is still down,” Bodle told San José Spotlight. “It just keeps adding up, to where a lot of these buses are not even repairable.”

    Riders and drivers affected

    VTA rider Liz Child said weekend bus service has been patchy at best.

    On the 73 line, Child has experienced two to three buses missing their scheduled stops in a row. The 73 line is one of several routes that has been hobbled by the parts shortage.

    “I think for most people it would be a problem,” Child said.

    The parts shortage isn’t just impacting bus routes, it’s also affecting light rail lines, said ATU President and business agent John Courtney.

    “If I go out to a bus stop and I’m a little unstable, and I don’t make it to work or miss a job interview and I’m pissed off, who am I going to vent on?” Courtney told San José Spotlight. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, it’s the operators.”

    In recent months, Courtney said he’s heard of drivers being accosted by irate riders who’ve missed appointments or been late for work by disrupted schedules.

    At its Nov. 3 meeting, VTA officials reported 34 assaults against operators so far this year, a 32% rise over the entirety of 2021. Assaults against VTA operators are common, and many drivers say they’ve been spit on, threatened or sexually harassed by passengers.

    Courtney and Bodle said that until VTA renews its contracts and ensures there are sufficient workers to maintain them, the problems will persist—and VTA riders and operators will continue to suffer as a result.

    “We have a huge hill to climb to bring back reliable service,” Bodle said. “We’re doing our part. We just want them to do their part.”

    Transit advocate Eugene Bradley said VTA needs to do better a job of alerting its customers about the service interruptions, and to be more transparent about the reasons behind them.

    “That is just horrible public service, horrible,” Bradley said.

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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