The question has been asked several times by Denton city officials and others about how the Denton County Transportation Authority will handle workforce reductions as part of its GoZone plan. But the answer has remained elusive.
And now some Denton City Council members say they don’t support — at least in part — the DCTA proposal because of how it might impact bus drivers.
“It is my understanding that drivers’ positions would be eliminated and offered the opportunity to apply for these Via jobs,” District 4 council member Alison Maguire said. “I have been told that current drivers would have no assurances they would be prioritized in hiring, no assurances they would receive health benefits and no assurances they would retain their union representation.”
In April, DCTA approved a four-year contract — a two-year term with two one-year options — for an amount not to exceed $33.5 million with New York-based Via Transportation. Under the proposed GoZone service, Via would deploy a fleet of 30 minivans that seat six passengers each. Using a mobile app, people could book rides to and from anywhere inside mapped-out zones, and Via would use the number of vans necessary to meet demand.
The service’s first phase includes two primary zones — one covering Denton and another covering Lewisville and Highland Village — for coverage of all three DCTA member cities. In subsequent steps following the launch, DCTA would expand those zones and create new ones, including a Denia neighborhood extension for the Denton zone and a Business 121 zone for Lewisville and Highland Village.
As part of the new service, several fixed bus routes and services would be slashed as the agency downsizes its bus fleet. While the University of North Texas shuttle service would remain unchanged, only bus Routes 3 and 7 in Denton would remain for the first six months, after which the agency would examine their long-term future. Routes 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6, as well as Lewisville’s Route 21 and 22, would be discontinued two weeks after GoZone’s launch.
‘Not an answer’
DCTA CEO Raymond Suarez could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But DCTA board Chair Chris Watts said no decision has been made on how to handle workforce reductions under the proposal.
“There’s not an answer yet because the board hasn’t officially approved what it looks like,” he said. “Plus, [North Texas Mobility Corporation] is the organization that is contracted … for the bus drivers. I don’t think there is an answer, at least at this stage of the game. People can look at the proposal, I guess.”
DCTA spokesperson Adrienne Hamilton in an email said that staff “has coordinated an open application window with Via, before positions are open to the public.”
That is “for NTMC operators who would like to apply,” she said. “With the proposed plan, DCTA anticipates a 52% reduction in overall NTMC-operated service hours.”
Kenneth Day is president of Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents about 80 transit employees in Denton. He said any switch DCTA makes will adversely and immediately impact those workers.
“I don’t know for certain how many employees will be affected as a result of the proposed service changes they are contemplating,” Day said. “It depends on the level of service they change, and that’s even a problem because it changes the standard of living for the employees. It means a change of income and loss of benefits.”
District 1 council member Vicki Byrd agreed.
“That is exactly my understanding,” she said. “And that is what’s very concerning. It is my understanding the starting pay would be $8 an hour with no kind of benefits. There probably needs to be some change, but what exactly is that? What will people be satisfied with? What is DCTA going to do?”
‘Not our responsibility’
But District 3 council member Jesse Davis said that is not the city’s problem.
“They are not DCTA employees,” he said. “Certainly, we owe them basic human consideration, but we don’t owe them a fiduciary duty. It could be blunt and a little cold, but their employment is not our responsibility. I think the way their jobs are brought up in the discussion is a red herring in the issue.”
Not so fast, Maguire said.
“A lot of these drivers live in Denton,” she said. “We have a responsibility to consider jobs for our constituents, and that’s why we engage in all these economic development partnership programs because we are concerned about employment in our city.”
Starting pay for DCTA bus drivers is $17.50 an hour.
“If we’re talking about our employees, it would be a totally different conversation,” Davis said. “But they are not our people.”
About 80 bus drivers are employed through NTMC.
DCTA projects the switch will increase service time for a small increase in cost, going from an annual 73,000 service hours at a $4.2 million budget to 99,000 service hours at a $4.3 million budget. For passengers, a permanent fare structure will not be set until later, although existing fare passes will include promotional GoZone access for the first six months — at 75 cents.
The DCTA budget is about $43 million. Ridership has declined each year since 2015, when it served 555,423 passengers, to 2019, when ridership dropped to 393,700.
Sales tax revenue from each member city funds the organization. In Denton, residents voted in 2004 to approve a half-cent sales tax to help create and fund DCTA. Officials with the agency estimate the on-demand program would save the agency $2.6 million a year.
‘Don’t have our blessing’
DCTA continues to gather community feedback on the GoZone proposal, with a board decision expected later this summer.
“They don’t have our blessing,” Byrd said. “I don’t want anybody to lose their jobs. I want to advocate for the bus drivers and the people who are getting on that bus and being dependent on the bus system. That’s exactly what I want.”
Maguire also said the proposal is not likely to receive the City Council’s nod.
“The Mobility Committee has a meeting June 29 to draft a resolution on the City Council position on the GoZone proposal,” she said. “It will include language that council might pass at the next council meeting on July 20. It is a statement of our opinion, but the DCTA board is ultimately the body to make that decision.”
The budget for DCTA’s current fiscal year projects that more than 1 million riders will use buses. Another 166,000 will use rail service.