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INVESTIGATES: Whistleblower, passengers say JTA buses regularly run late, sometimes don’t show up

Action News Jax has found the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s bus system has major issues that dramatically affect the people who rely on it.

The riders we’ve talked to have no other option to get around, so they can’t afford when these busses are late -- or worse, don’t show up. Yet time after time, they say JTA’s service leaves them hanging.

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So we followed one of those people: Laleta McClure. She leaves her home at 9 a.m. but her shift doesn’t start for another three hours.

“I’m not logging on until noon,” she said, “but this is the strategic planning I need to do to get to work in a timely manner.”

That’s because she has to take the bus. She takes the 50B, if it’s running, from Baymeadows and Southside to her job. She works at a call center downtown. Depending on the day, it takes her two buses and a Skyway ride to get there.

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“If it shows up I know it’ll be a good day and I’ll get to work on time,” she said.

It’s a journey that takes her two hours and twenty minutes to make on the day we followed her. If she drove herself, it would be an easy 20-minute trip.

“It’s taxing physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially,” she said, and that’s why she’s saving up for a car.

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She’d rather use the money for bills but she said JTA is so unreliable she doesn’t have another option.

She’s not alone. Michael Herbert rides the 17 route.

“I’ve waited two hours for a bus,” he said.

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Jenea Clark has experienced the same, or worse.

“It’s hit or miss,” she said of the 23, “I’ve had experience where somebody quit in the middle of the shift and we didn’t get home until like an hour or two later.”

Since Action News Jax began its investigation into JTA, our inbox has been filled with emails and calls from riders, all saying the same thing: hours standing on the side of the road, waiting for their ride -- busses running late or, sometimes, never coming at all.

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So we requested the on-time reports from JTA to see just how late they are and how many busses fail to run. In a prior story, JTA told us its on-time goal is 82%. That means its busses arrive at the stops on time at least 82% of the time. But its own data from the first four months of 2023 shows most, if not almost all of its routes fell short of that standard, month after month.

It’s a situation one whistleblower said has only gotten worse. This person works on the bus operations side and didn’t want to be identified for fear of being fired.

“If you’re talking about routes that are missed,” the whistleblower said, “it could be anywhere from ten routes a day to up to 30 or 40 routes a day … You have people that can’t make it work. The kids can’t get to school … you’ve got your senior citizens that need to get to their doctor’s appointments … and they can’t get where they need to go.”

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This person took a risk coming forward but wanted the public to know what it’s like when riders can’t get where they’re going.

“They’re crying,” the whistleblower said. “Their bosses are yelling at them. I mean, you’re on the phone trying to calm the boss down or the day care or whoever these people may be, to try to explain why they don’t have the service that they’re supposed to have.”

It’s happening daily, the whistleblower said. And JTA’s own data shows this is all happening while it’s moving fewer people (-1,785,591 annual passenger trips,) covering fewer miles (-13,607,275 annual passenger miles, and -228,362 total revenue -miles,) operating fewer vehicles (-3,) for fewer hours (-6,957 total revenue hours,) and running less frequently (+17.3 minutes, average headway) than it did just three years ago.

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For a transportation system with a budget primarily allocated to bussing (almost $138 million for FY 23/24), this whistleblower said JTA should do better for its customers.

“They rely on JTA … JTA is a big organization that should provide what they’re putting out that they’re supposed to do, and that’s public transportation for the people of Jacksonville,” they said.

When asked how much JTA is dropping the ball this person was quick to answer: “A lot.”

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And that leaves people like McClure in a tough spot. Especially on days like Monday, when her bus never showed and she had to take PTO from work.

That’s why she made a point to attend JTA’s board meeting, begging its members and its CEO to, “do better by us. Please. Please.”

JTA responded about its on-time reports and missed routes.

“The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) adheres to some of the most stringent on-time performance (OTP) criteria in the public transportation industry. While navigating the challenges brought on by a post-pandemic, nationwide shortage of CDL drivers that has impacted workforce retention and OTP across both the public and private transportation sectors, the JTA recently achieved a return to our full budgeted headcount of 368 full-time bus operators. Additionally, through strategic optimizations of our bus route services, we have achieved a 4% improvement in month-over-month OTP and anticipate achieving a return to our established OTP target within the current month.”

—  Jacksonville Transportation Authority

JTA also provided the following links to resources addressing post-pandemic transportation workforce challenges, as well as coverage of JTA’s recent hiring success:

https://www.masstransitmag.com/bus/press-release/53083153/jacksonville-transportation-authority-jta-jta-marks-success-recruiting-bus-operators

https://www.news4jax.com/news/local/2024/01/19/jta-on-track-to-fill-368-full-time-bus-operator-positions-by-february/

https://www.apta.com/wp-content/uploads/APTA-SURVEY-BRIEF-Workforce-Shortages-March-2022.pdf

https://talkbusiness.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/ATA_Driver_Shortage_Report_2022.pdf

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