Partial Metrobus strike in Northern Virginia surprised many riders

Thousands of commuters woke up Thursday to find their usual route to work shut down without any clear notice.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 announced a partial Metrobus strike late Wednesday at the privatized Cinder Bed Road garage in Lorton, Virginia. But Metro only provided information to riders about the 14 bus lines that were not operating Thursday at 7 a.m.

“The Metro alerts didn’t go out until a lot of people had already started their commutes,” said Andrew Kierig of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council.

It highlights ongoing concerns from riders about the information Metro provides during disruptions.

“We’d like to see communications be much better from WMATA on everything,” he said. “It’s frustrating generally. The RAC Twitter shouldn’t be a replacement for WMATA customer service. But for a lot of riders, it has become that in a way, and there’s only so much energy I have each day.”

Metro could not provide specific details until 7 a.m. because it was waiting to see what routes Transdev, the private contractor that operates buses from the garage, would be able to serve with available staff, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said.

“We put [it] out as soon as we knew what they could provide,” Wiedefeld said.

Still, he called it unrealistic to think that Transdev would be able to get enough replacement workers to cover all of the routes on just a few hours’ notice.

Wiedefeld also suggested that Metro and Transdev were not 100% sure that the strike would actually happen until they saw the picket lines around 3:30 a.m. Thursday.

Metro Board Chairman Paul Smedberg promised improved communication around any future disruptions.

“We’ll hopefully have more time to respond than we did today. … We’ll definitely try to get word out as quickly as possible,” he said.

Metro canceled service Thursday morning on routes 17B, 17G, 17H, 17K, 17L, 17M, 18G, 18H, 18J, 18P, 29C, 29G, 29W, S80 and on TAGs. Routes 29K, 29N and REX were operating Sunday schedules as of midday.

Striking workers’ concerns

Several of the striking bus operators outlined their concerns to the Metro Board at a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday morning.

“It’s sad that we have to come to a strike in order to get what we deserve,” Tharien Graham said.

The drivers want pay and benefits in line with other Metrobus operators. Transdev has offered less than that. Graham also expressed concerns about training, while other drivers raised concerns about safety and inspections.

“It bothers me greatly that we … do the same job but yet we have unsafe buses to work with, buses that drive like 20 mph on the HOV sometimes with no proper heating system, but yet we do an outstanding job and get paid less,” Kingsley Crabbe said.

It is unclear how long the strike might last.

“We want better benefits, better health care. We just want everything we possibly can to make sure we can take care of our family,” Latrice Smith said.

Metro has not intervened in the contract talks between Transdev and the union, “nor should we,” Wiedefeld said.

Negotiations were continuing Thursday.

Though the strike only impacts bus service based in Lorton — mainly longer routes serving that area of Fairfax County and the Richmond Highway Express — the union apparently hopes the timing of the strike gains additional attention when the World Series comes to town this weekend.

The strike — Local 689’s first in more than 40 years against any transit operator in the region — has no impact on rail service or on bus service operated from other garages or by other regional bus systems. Collective bargaining agreements prohibit the union from disrupting those other services.

The union believes the outcome of the negotiations will set a key precedent moving forward for other privately contracted bus systems in the region and, potentially, for work on the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County that Metro plans to contract out.

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