By Kiet Do

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) – Following the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deadly mass shooting at the rail yard earlier this year, the Valley Transportation Authority took a big step forward in bouncing back, as more than two dozen bus drivers graduated.

On Wednesday, the agency graduated 27 new operators, as it makes steady progress towards returning to pre-pandemic service levels. Despite the addition of the new drivers, the agency still has 70 openings, and is actively recruiting to fill the slots.

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VTA currently has 862 bus operators, with full staffing at 932.

All lines are currently active, but running at 90% capacity, with reduced frequency, according to VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross. Some stops that would have previously been serviced by a bus every 12 to 15 minutes, are now experiencing waits of up to 20 minutes.

“So we can’t offer that faster service until we have more drivers on the road. So as we hire more drivers we can work toward getting to 100% service,” Ross told KPIX 5.

Training takes nine weeks, and once complete, the operators earn $42,000 per year, along with health benefits and pension contributions. Operators reach the top pay scale of $70,000 after four years. No experience is required to apply.

VTA attributes the shortage to “normal attrition and turnover”, and also an internal mentorship program that moves operators up the ranks into higher paying positions throughout the agency. About 30 operators have been recently promoted through the program this year.

Of Wednesday’s 27 graduates, five were women. Deborah Burton, 58, was the oldest of the female graduates.

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“We being love. We know how to open up. We know how to support, we’re a supporting team. And we bring strength. Can’t nobody bear strength like a woman can,” said Burton.

Eric Shaunce, also a new graduate, recalled his time living on the streets after experiencing homelessness, and riding the Route 22 bus. Also known as “Hotel 22”, the line ran from Eastridge Mall to Palo Alto, 24 hours a day, and has been used by many of the unhoused for years to escape the elements.

Shaunce said driving Route 22 himself recently was a powerful and memorable moment to show compassion.

“It’s a great feeling to be able to pray for them, and give them a little bit of encouragement. Talk with them, and treat them treat them like a human being,” said Shaunce.

Jessie Davis, 61, was the oldest graduate in the class.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life. And to make this change, and to accept this challenge, I’m just overwhelmingly filled with joy. To know that you can do it. I’m not done yet,” said Davis.

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It’s unclear when service will return to 100%, according to Ross. The next bus operator class will graduate on December 29 with approximately 28 people.