Mike Ake, regional VP for Keolis Transit North America — Washoe County’s bus operator — earlier this month said route cancellations in the wake of an anticipated bus driver strike could endanger riders as the region is experiencing a record heat wave.
“The last thing I want is anybody to show up to a bus stop in the heat you guys are experiencing and not get a ride,” he said.
More than a dozen buses and routes have been canceled over the weekend. Teamsters Union Local 533 President Gary Watson, which represents transit workers, said the rides have been canceled since Friday.
“Early Friday, RTCWashoe.com showed business as usual. As the day heated up, so did the notices of routes going down. Nineteen buses serving 16 routes were idle on a record-breaking 104-degree day,” Watson said. “On Friday, countless numbers waited in the sun for a bus that did not come.”
The Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission only made the announcement on social media this morning that routes were canceled.
“Due to unforeseen circumstances, some routes will not be operating today,” the agency posted on social media accounts.
It referred users to its main website. No information was available on RTC’s homepage, its news release section or its “hot topics” section of its website. The alerts section of the website, under the Public Transportation tab, shows 15 alerts about temporary service delays for today.
After this article was published, RTC changed its Facebook post to add a link directly to the web page noting the service changes.
An RTC spokesperson did not respond to a question about the cancelations.
“Keolis can respond to the service cancelations occurring,” said RTC’s Michael Moreno.
Ake said drivers have been calling in sick and again accused the union of misleading the public.
“We are actively working to find solutions to keep routes serviced, especially in times like this with extreme temperatures. Recently, we had an increase in team members calling in sick and of course we support time off for any team member if they are ill,” he said. “Because of this, we’ve been working hard to maintain needed service levels by reassigning buses to cover routes as best as possible but that does mean wait times can occasionally lengthen.”
Watson is blaming both RTC and Keolis for the route closures.
“There’s no incentive for those contractors to be hiring more employees. They’re essentially draining the system,” he said. “Unfortunately, RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas has informed me that he waived all penalties for [missed rides] the past 16 months so they have no incentive to fulfill their obligations.
“Meanwhile, people bake in record heat while Keolis basks in millions of RTC federal relief funds while having spent only $338,000 on local safety,” he added. “There’s no accountability by RTC’s board.”
Moreno confirmed damages have been suspended.
“During the onset of the pandemic, RTC suspended all incentives and liquidated damages on both the Keolis and MTM transit contracts starting in March 2020 due to COVID-19 and the need for staffing flexibility for keeping a safe and healthy environment on all RTC transit vehicles,” he said. “At this time, we do not have plans to reinstate incentives or liquidated damages until we are past the COVID pandemic.”
Watson further said drivers are available to cover the canceled routes.
“They’re supposed to be calling the extra work list. It’s my understanding they’re not,” he said.
Watson said he was also threatened with arrest Friday “for trespassing at the downtown Reno bus station.”
Negotiations between Keolis and the union have been fraught with allegations hurled back and forth over a litany of issues for more than a year.
This story has been updated to include comment from Keolis and to note that RTC updated its social media posts.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.