Every so often, Al Ramey thinks about switching lanes. He glances at the mirrors of his King County Metro bus and sees nothing but open pavement.
Then a sixth sense kicks in.
“I don’t make that move, and sure enough, there will be a Miniature Something going by, and it’s out of all my mirrors,” he says. “I can’t pick it up in any mirror. And you’ll see me moving my body around, to make sure I’ve covered everything.”
Because as he’s fond of saying, anything on the street can bite you.
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Ramey has been honing these instincts for 61 years.
He is probably the longest-tenured transit driver in the nation, says the American Public Transportation Association, which honored him for a 51-year safe driving record this month in Kansas City, Mo.
He didn’t expect to spend decades behind the wheel, but found out, “I’m totally relaxed, but I’m on guard.” Ramey tells trainees: “I didn’t expect anything out of the job. Don’t try to imagine what it’s going to be, just see what comes with the job.” People who get on the bus are fascinating, he says.
At age 82, he continues to drive one daily round-trip on the popular Route 150, connecting Kent, Southcenter, Sodo and downtown Seattle.
The longtime Burien resident officially retired in 2000, and currently receives a $2,795 monthly pension, records say. Ramey says his extra income from part-time driving pays for vacation cruises with his wife.
“And I’m not a sit-at-home guy,” he says.
There is no mandatory retirement age at Metro. All bus and rail operators must pass a physical every two years, and driving is evaluated yearly.
Two Metro drivers last year were older than Ramey, but had fewer years on the job. As of 2010, the agency employed 62 transit operators age 70 or older, out of a work force of 2,780, according to a county database.
“We value our older drivers,” said Darryl Russell, safety director. “Because they have done quite a few things right.”
Left home at 16
Ramey says he grew up poor in Seattle, raised by a grandmother in a rental house where the Pacific Science Center arches now stand. He left home at 16 and worked as a ship deckhand, truck driver and carnival barker, a self-described vagabond.
He ran low on money, so his older sister urged him to apply for steady work at Seattle Transit, where he was hired Nov. 5, 1952. He worked briefly for Boeing, then returned to buses, at the Suburban Transportation System.
Back then, the same people rode every day, in the same seats, and knew each other, Ramey remembers.
An old Ford bus would be so packed that people sat on a rod that manually swung open the door, as on an old school bus. Then on cue, they would raise their rumps a half-inch so Ramey could let in new passengers.
“The buses didn’t have power steering. Most had straight up-and-down windshields, which in the dark was like a television screen reflecting the inside of the bus,” he said.
Buses carried only a small heater, so in wintertime drivers wore thick socks and boots. Transmissions were controlled by stick shift. Bus drivers made change for cash fares, carried mail and hauled freight.
Metro Transit itself wasn’t formed until 1973. It’s now the nation’s seventh-busiest public bus agency, carrying 400,000 weekday passengers around the nation’s fastest-growing big city. Taxpayers spend millions to employ part-time drivers like Ramey, who can serve commuter peaks.
Thursday morning, Ramey brought his bus from the base, and parked at 5:01 a.m. at Convention Place Station, and wedged a pink wheel chock under a tire until his 5:15 a.m. departure time.
He greeted tunnel security guards by name, and congratulated a regular passenger, Devayon Lett, on the new septum ring inside his nose. Cruising south, Ramey saluted every oncoming operator in the Sodo busway.
Boarding passengers all received the same “Good morning,” except a homeless man’s black terrier pup, who earned a “Good morning, big guy.” Ramey tells jokes, though not many.
He tells customers to pay the fare, but won’t provoke a fight.
“He does everything in moderation,” said George Died, riding in back. “This guy, he’s totally 100 percent professional.”
Ramey keeps his left hand on the steering wheel, while his right hand rests on his knee, a habit from when a right hand controlled the stick shift. The standard 10-and-2 hand position causes back tension, he says.
Another long-honed skill is to sidle toward a curbside bus stop at almost full speed, accurately arriving within a couple inches.
Passengers said they appreciate how Ramey hustles to reach Kent Station, just in time for transferring onto the Route 180 bus to Auburn.
“If he didn’t do it, I’d be out of a job,” says Lett, headed to work at UPS.
Ramey’s patience is tested whenever a bicyclist takes a rear seat, wasting seconds to retrieve a bike off the front rack. Or when a train blocks a street. Or when pedestrians running from the Kent Station park-and-ride garage to catch the Sounder trains dart in front of his bus and flip him the middle finger.
All these annoyances put the 150 at risk of running late. “Get off, get off,” he whispered as a woman hesitated at the rear door.
Heading back north into Seattle, he drew on his experience, and avoided moving into the left bus-carpool lane — which would only force him to weave right again, to reach the Sodo exit. Ramey and another driver timed those options for a month and found a mere minute’s difference. But staying in the right lane reduces turbulence from traffic.
“The more I’d have to step over all these lanes, the more jeopardy you’re in,” he said.
The ride did cause one passenger to grumble, “He’s trying to suffocate us,” because Ramey didn’t notice the stagnant, warming air within the climate-controlled bus and open a vent.
“And they want more money,” the rider said. Metro is girding for a possible 16 percent cut in service hours, due to budget shortfalls.
Changes on the road
Ramey’s favorite run was Route 194, airport-to-downtown, discontinued in early 2010 when Sound Transit light rail reached the airport. Buses attracted people from around the world — his biggest-ever load reached 135 people.
“I don’t like an empty bus,” he said.
He says the biggest change in traffic is that drivers feel no compunction about cutting in front of a bus. Passengers think of Metro as a government bureaucracy, so they’re quick to complain. “People walk around in life frustrated, anymore,” he said.
Ramey was Operator of the Year in 1992. Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer said his file notes four preventable accidents that caused minor property damage, the most recent a sideswipe 24 years ago.
“He loves transit. You can see the love in the way he treats his customers, his work ethic, the way he talks about how important it is to provide the service,” says his boss, South Base superintendent Suzanne Keyport.
Ramey, his wife, Ruth, and their friend and housemate Linda Smith, also operate the Northwest Public Transportation Historical Group, which preserves models, schedules and artifacts from the 20th century.
By now he’s seen just about everything, except for layoffs, which he worries are coming to Metro soon.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom