Driver recruitment challenges could hamper Winnipeg Transit service goals

Winnipeg Transit continues to struggle with driver recruitment and now says it likely won’t reach its goals for returning to pre-pandemic service levels.

The service has been operating at six per cent below 2019 levels. This year’s budget set a target of increasing service to three per cent below pre-pandemic levels, with the aim of restoring full service by this fall.

On Monday, Winnipeg Transit director Greg Ewankiw told the public works committee that won’t happen.

“This is an issue that is nationwide,” Ewankiw said in an interview.

The service is currently missing about 50 drivers out of a full complement of 1,100. If service were increased to three per cent below pre-pandemic levels, that shortage would increase to about 80 drivers.

Transit has “streamlined” parts of its hiring process, taking in applications, conducting interviews and testing in a single day.

That reduced the time it took to hire a driver to four weeks or less — down from eight to 12 weeks.

Transit hired 108 drivers last year and more than 60 drivers this year, but retirements and resignations prevented the service from gaining more ground.

In addition to schedule changes and vacations taken during the summer, there are a number of special events that Transit is expected to provide services.

“We are providing services for Bomber games, Red River Ex, Folk Festival and we’ve also got the world Police and Fire Games this year as well,” said Ewankiw.

“We rely on overtime now to get our service out, and certainly, we’ll be relying on overtime for those special events as well.”

The committee passed a motion, brought forward by committee chair Janice Lukes, giving Transit permission not to meet the council’s targets had set for it.

“There’s nothing worse than drive-bys and there’s nothing worse than [buses] just not showing up,” Lukes told reporters.

“So we have to set expectations now and that’s what this … this motion is doing.”

The motion also orders the public service to report back to the committee in December on how recruitment efforts are going. The motion will go to the council for a final vote.

Prioritize sidewalks during spring clean-up: motion

Lukes also put forward a motion that would prioritize sidewalks, bike lanes and active transportation paths during the city’s annual spring clean-up.

“That would mean some of the streets are not getting done as fast but prioritizing the active transportation network for the vulnerable road users,” Lukes told reporters.

“Because it’s much more hazardous if you wipe out the gravel on a bike, or walking, or on a mobility device, than it is in a vehicle.”

The motion asked city staff to study how that could be done and report back in about six months.

Public works director Jim Berezowsky told the committee part of the issue is sidewalks are sanded more during the winter.

One challenge to clearing the sidewalks would be pushing more sand onto boulevards in residential areas, he said.

“All we’re going to do, if we sweep a residential area sidewalk, is we’re putting it on the boulevard that [the property owner] probably just raked,” he said.

Berezowski suggested the city might need to look at how much sand it is using during the winter, and consider whether it is necessary.

That motion will also go to the council for a final vote.

Portage and Main motion pushed back

The committee also delayed a decision on a motion from Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry Coun. Sherri Rollins asked the city to look at ways of improving pedestrian access at the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street.

This was an amended version of a motion passed by the City Center Community Committee last month called in the city to allow pedestrians to cross the intersection at street level.

Lukes expects the city’s public engagement process on options to redevelop the intersection, which includes an online survey, will gather feedback from people on improving accessibility, he said.

“What we don’t want to do is cloud the waters right now,” she said.

In a plebiscite during the 2018 election, two-thirds of voters opted to keep the intersection closed. Lukes seconded a motion that put the question on the ballot.

Despite that, on Monday he said he was “fine” with the intersection allowing pedestrian access, and believes the current process will better communicate to the public how that could be done.

She called a motion from Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt, who would require another plebiscite before the city took any action to open Portage and Main to pedestrians, “ridiculous.”

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