New Muni operators graduate from their 11-week training program at the Presdio Muni Yard on Friday, May 31, 2019. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

First class of laid-off Chariot drivers graduate Muni operator training

Four years ago, Ashley Mubatas joined private bus company Chariot and found a family.

The commute was quick, too — just ten minutes from the San Francisco native’s home in the Excelsior — and best of all, it helped Mubatas provide for her 5-year-old daughter.

In January this year, however, that all came to a screeching halt when roughly 300 Chariot drivers were laid off after the company announced it would close. Police and private security arrived at Chariot headquarters to escort employees out, Mubatas said.

“That’s when I knew it was real,” she said Friday. When the truth finally hit her, she cried.

Now Mubatas, 30, has embraced a second chance — she’s part of the first group of around a dozen Chariot drivers to complete their Muni operator training, who graduated together Friday.

The former drivers for the private transit company got a leg-up in the hiring process through a new program called CityDrive, run by The Office of Economic and Workforce Development. When Chariot’s employees found themselves out of jobs, Mayor London Breed and OEWD accelerated the launch of the program, which was already in the works.

For Mubatas, CityDrive simply helped facilitate her application to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. She had been on the waiting list to drive for Muni for two years, but suddenly found herself able to enroll in training when Breed gave a speech to laid-off Chariot drivers at the Islais Creek Muni Motor Coach Facility in January.

“I applied right then and there,” Mubatas said, sitting just a few rows away from the mayor. “I was clickin’ and typin’.”

For other laid off Chariot drivers, CityDrive was a more involved program. David Delmar, a 36-year-old San Francisco native who attended Breed’s own alma mater, Galileo High School, got hands-on training from CityDrive to get his Class B license.

“I said ‘Why not?’ I have to take the test again anyhow,” he said. “And they took us right to the testing facility.”

Friday, at SFMTA’s Presidio Division Yard at Geary Boulevard and Masonic Avenue, Delmar and Mubatas graduated along with 40 other newly minted Muni operators. Members of the SFMTA Board of Directors were in attendance, Gwyneth Borden and Cheryl Brinkman, as well as SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum, who oversees Muni operations citywide.

Kirschbaum, in particular, smiled wide when speaking before the class of new drivers. The embattled director of transit has had her hands full since taking up her new role late last year: broken train doors have led to a fleet overhaul, downed subway wires brought Muni trains to a halt in late April, and a pervasive operator shortage has left buses collecting dust in Muni yards.

“This is amazing,” she said, smiling wide. “This is the biggest training class maybe in forever, certainly in the last five years.”

Her face then turned serious, and she addressed the class firmly: “You are needed in San Francisco; 720,000 people rely on Muni every day to get where they need to go. It’s the most important job we have in the agency, and in many ways, it’s the hardest job.”

Delmar also had a chance to speak.

He first thanked Mayor Breed, OEWD and Muni training staff for the second chance, “on behalf of myself and other former Chariot drivers,” he said.

“I remember on the first day we went out on the road itself,” he said. “Some choice words helped me stay safe: No rollbacks, check your left and your right, and please don’t hit anything.”

At that last quip, Delmar got a laugh from his fellow classmates, but they won’t be the only ones happy to see the end of their training. The CityDrive program sent roughly 36 Chariot drivers on to train with Muni, according to OEWD. That’s helpful for the agency as well, which has suffered lately from a shortage of nearly 400 operators since last year, leading to long wait times for Muni buses across San Francisco — that’s probably why the agency committed $300,000 to help fund the program.

And CityDrive has more classes filled with graduates on the way. Not all of the former Chariot drivers are Muni-bound, however. Of the 76 recent graduates of CityDrive, some have gone on to drive commuter shuttles, among other local driving jobs.

For Mubatas, though, she’s looking forward to driving the same Muni buses that took her to Burton High School as a teenager. She admitted Muni isn’t always perfect — she remembered buses filled-to-the-brim with passengers flying by without stopping to pick her up when she was younger.

“Muni was strict boot camp for sure,” she said. “I’m excited, and kind of nervous.”

Now she sees Muni service from the other side of the farebox.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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