Bus Driver Shortage, Part 2: Krista Dalton Has What it Takes
The nationwide shortage of professional drivers continues to leave at least 188 unfilled bus driver and train operator positions open at the Regional Transportation District and Bustang, a problem that forces many of the 1,661 existing drivers at the agencies to work at least six days a week.
In our first story on the scarcity of bus and train operators in Colorado, we looked at the social and economic forces behind the problem. In a nutshell, it’s a tough job without much social status. And with the state’s booming economy, easier, better-paying jobs are not hard to find.
Here, Streetsblog Editor Andy Bossleman talks to Krista Dalton, a Bustang driver who supports a family of four. She drives from Colorado Springs to Denver and back, with most days starting at 5 a.m. and ending after 7:30 p.m.
Beyond the long hours, Dalton must drive safely, often through soul-crushing traffic, with passengers she loves — and others who give her grief. But she drove a school bus in the Lone Star State for years, which was a good place to start.
“You gotta have patience,” she said in a Texan accent. Then she let out a big, smoky laugh before sharing what she often said to the pre-kindergarten students she drove to school. “‘Sit down please. Leave her alone. Please get back up off that dirty floor.’”
In 2016, Dalton, 57, moved her entire family to Colorado Springs, including two adult daughters and one grandchild, who all live in a home she bought. After two years on the job, she earns $18 per hour with benefits.
“I’m the provider,” she said. Her adult daughter, the mother of one of her grandchildren, has a good job in medical billing, but receives no child support.
“There’s no way, even in Colorado Springs, she could afford a one bedroom apartment, groceries, gas, insurance, car payment and day care,” she said. “There’s no way.”
Dalton wanted to line up a job before she made the move to Colorado. When she heard about Bustang, she applied.
“‘A motorcoach is a lot different than a school bus, so why not learn something new?’” she asked herself.
Her commercial driver’s license transferred, including an endorsement to drive passengers. Once she was hired, the Colorado Department of Transportation, which funds Bustang, required an extensive training process.
“At the time it can be very frustrating,” she said. “But afterwards you’re going to go to [the trainer] and say, ‘Thank you for being so strict and hard. I’m very thankful for it.”
But many of the skills Dalton brings to the job don’t come from the classroom, especially when it comes to dealing with angry passengers.
“You know, sometimes you get grumpy people,” she said. Passengers often get upset when they miss light rail connections or flights, or they’re frustrated to be stuck in slow-moving traffic. “You’ve gotta be a certain way with people because if they’re grumpy, and you’re grumpy back, what’s going to happen? It’s going to escalate and everybody’s going to be upset.”
Dalton exudes Texas charm with quick quips, a warm grin and a good-natured laugh. Her sense of humor may also help to diffuse tense situations that come up with passengers.
“You’ve got to look at things in a comedic way. That goes with life in general nowadays.” she said. “Or dang, what do you do? Pull your hair out?”
When I met Dalton, I noticed her smile and humor immediately. But she is intensely serious about her job and in the time it would take to step on a bus, I understood immediately: I like her. She’s in control. And I trust her.
“It’s a career. It’s not a job,” she said. “You’re transporting precious cargo. You’re transporting somebody’s mom, somebody’s dad, somebody’s brother. And that cannot be replaced like a bag of groceries. It’s just that simple.”
Even with her people skills, Dalton was assaulted on the job. One day last winter, when she reached her last stop at the Tejon/Nevada Park & Ride in Colorado Springs, she walked to the back of the bus and asked a sleeping homeless man to leave.
“You walk your coach because you need to make sure you do not have anybody else left,” she said. “Because you don’t want to take them back to the yard with you.”
The man, who had been unruly earlier on the trip, grumbled before reluctantly stepping off the bus. But when Dalton came back to the coach, she saw a plastic grocery bag that belonged to him. She picked it up and stepped outside to return it to him. He insisted it wasn’t his and she set it on the ground.
“You can either take it, or leave it here,” she said.
The man became irate before hurling the bag at her.
“I went to walk back to the coach and he screamed, ‘I told you it wasn’t by bag.’ He picked it up, and he threw it, and it hit me in the back,” she said. “The mistake I made was to turn my back to him. And thank goodness there were no canned goods in the sack.”
She was unhurt. When State Patrol officers arrived, she declined to press charges, and even found humor in the situation.
“A male police officer came back on the coach and he said, ‘Well he’s not from around here. He’s from Oklahoma,’” she said before chuckling. “And the only thing that could pop in my mind was the Texas — O.U. rivalry.”
Every weekday, her bus is scheduled to arrive at the Tejon Park & Ride at 6:55 p.m. She often heads home between 7:30 – 7:40 p.m., after returning the coach to a bus yard and completing a post-trip inspection. The next day, she gets back to the yard at 5 a.m., when she starts another inspection before departing from the same Park & Ride at 6:05 a.m. But her days can get even longer with traffic.
“When I leave in the afternoon, I tell ‘em, ‘I’m gonna go play in the traffic,’” she said. “There are a lot of times when you get stuck in those traffic jams and you’re doing three miles per hour. You’re doing five miles an hour. ‘Oh look! We’re up to ten!’ There’s nothing anybody can do about that blingin’ traffic out there.”
Dalton’s mix of personality and professionalism seem to make her a perfect fit for the job. But even for her, it can be challenge.
“It’s not an easy job. It does take a certain type of person to do it,” she said. “To handle the traffic. The weather conditions. And the responsibility.”
But the work is satisfying, she says, especially when she gets people home through traffic or bad weather.
“One of the best compliments is when a customer turns around and says, ‘Thank you for getting me home. I’m so glad I didn’t have to drive.”
Bustang operates 365 days per year, and she also finds working on holidays gratifying.
“I had a couple of people that would get off and say, ‘Thank you for bringing me home to my family for the holiday,’” she said. “You just feel good, because now they’re able to be with their family. And that’s what it’s about.”
This interview took place on March 26. Since, Ace Express, the contractor that operates Bustang, promoted her to a road supervisor position. To apply for bus and train operator positions, click here for Bustang and here for RTD.
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