6 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY JANUARY 18-24, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com 831 On a sunny Jan. 8, just after the clock strikes noon, a handful of Monterey-Salinas Transit board members arrive via shuttle to MST’s coach operator training course just north of the intersection of 7th Avenue and Gigling Road in Seaside. The training course is a wide open, rectangular tarmac on the western side of the former Fort Ord, and there are a few MST employees already present. Several more disembark off the shuttle with the board members who signed up: Soledad Mayor Anna Velazquez, King City Mayor Mike LeBarre, Salinas City Councilmember Tony Barerra, Del Rey Oaks City Councilmember Kim Shirley and Marina City Councilmember Liesbeth Visscher. MST General Manager Carl Sedoryk, who came with the board members, addresses them as they congregate on the edge of the tarmac in their neon-yellow MST-branded safety vests. Sedoryk says the first thing is to adjust the steering wheel to your liking, and after that, the mirrors. MST is experiencing a shortage of drivers at the moment—there are currently 19 open positions—and the board members are there not to interview for a job, but to try their hand at driving an MST coach—aka bus—so they can better understand what it’s like to pilot in the easiest and safest of circumstances. There are no other vehicles, pedestrians or cyclists on the road, and no passengers aside from MST’s trainer Daniel Merillana, who guides them all through the steps to get the bus rolling and navigate the course—two wide turns, and a narrow lane of two rows of parallel cones, four on each side. Once inside the cockpit—aka the bus driver’s seat—of the coach, Merillana coaches the would-be coach operators on going from stopped to go: Put on your seatbelt, adjust your seat and mirrors if needed, release the parking brake and put it into drive with your foot on the brake. But here is why it feels so much different than driving a car: All the controls, outside of steering, braking and accelerating, are completely different. It’s more like an airplane cockpit, as the dashboard is a panel of metal switches, and the parking brake is released by pulling up a knob by the driver’s left elbow. And even though steering is still steering, the wheel is far more horizontal than that of a car, and turning the bus feels more akin to piloting a boat than an automobile. That being said, the turning radius of the coach is impressive, and tighter than one might expect for such a giant vehicle. Velazquez, the board chair, goes first. In the narrow lane of cones she knocks three out of place and knocks down one. When she gets off the bus, she’s glowing from the ride. “How many cones did I hit?” Upon being apprised, she says, “At first I was a little nervous because of the size of the bus, but it actually maneuvers pretty well.” That did not prove to be true for Visscher, who knocked down nearly the entire right row. While the driving is taking place, Mark Friddle, an MST bus driver for 23 years and now a trainer, is on the course resetting cones and providing damage assessments to the group after every turn. Everyone keeps hitting the last cone on the right, and LeBarre says of Friddle, “He put [the cones] way too close together.” (LeBarre hit the last cone on the right.) Sedoryk says the reason amateur drivers often hit that cone is because they’re focused on their left, not respecting the distance they need to keep on the right side— the bus is wider than a car. The top performer on the board is Barerra, who only nudges the last right cone out of place. When he steps off the bus, he raises his fist in the air triumphantly, and says, “Salinas! Board member of the week!” Smiles abound. Once MST hires a prospective coach operator, pay starts during training at $25.50 an hour, and rises to $26.85 an hour for those who already have a Class B license. Job offers occur on the spot if one passes a background check and onsite drug test. Just be sure to follow Merillana’s pro-tip when you’re straightening up to enter the cones: Hug the left. Coaching Up MST board members try their hand at driving buses— the agency, after all, is hiring. By David Schmalz MST trainer Daniel Merillana explains the steps to get the bus rolling to Soledad Mayor Anna Velazquez, chair of the MST board. “It actually maneuvers pretty well.” TALES FROM THE AREA CODE DANIEL DREIFUSS