Central Community Transit continues to struggle with driver and bus shortage


— The last three years have definitely been a challenge for

Central Community Transit

, which transports passengers around Kandiyohi, Renville and Meeker counties in a fleet of buses.

The coronavirus pandemic shut down things for several months, but the fallout continues even as rider numbers rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

"The level of need has returned," said Tiffany Collins, CCT transit director. "We are not providing the service at the level we'd like to be providing at this time."

The main challenges are a lack of drivers and the difficulties in receiving new buses.

"We can't really blame it on COVID," Collins said. "There are just so many factors that we may not totally understand."

Collins estimates CCT is short about 16 drivers, perhaps more. Without them, the transportation provider has had to cut back on services — including no weekday evenings or weekend routes. Several drivers retired over the last few years, and CCT just hasn't been able to find replacements.

"Applicants are hard to come by," Collins said.

She feels CCT offers people a great career that includes benefits, paid time off and access to the Public Employees Retirement Association plan. There are both full-time and part-time positions available, and CCT tries to create schedules that work for its drivers and their lives.

"We feel we are very flexible with driver schedules," Collins said.

While many drivers come to CCT as their second, third or post-retirement career, Collins believes a CCT driver would be a great primary career. Anyone 18 and over with a good driving record is eligible to be a bus driver.

"Drivers can really find a rewarding experience," helping passengers get to where they need to go, Collins said.

It doesn't help to have bus drivers when you don't have any buses for them to drive. While CCT isn't at that point yet, Collins admits she is concerned about the age of the current fleet and the difficulties CCT is having in obtaining replacements.

Out of the fleet of 33 buses, 36% have more than 200,000 miles and 42% are more than seven years old, the normal threshold for CCT to replace the buses.

"Eight of those buses should have been replaced in 2020 and 2021," Collins said. "We have another four buses that should have been replaced in 2022."

The top reason for the delay in getting new buses is a shortage of supply. The main producer of the chassis used in CCT buses, along with other vehicles such as ambulances, is Ford, which has drastically cut back production.

"They have just not been making as many vehicles of that," Collins said, adding only about 10% of the need is being met.

Also at issue are the tight labor market and the computer chip shortage that has dogged automakers for months.

"It is a nationwide issue," Collins said.

Because of the difficulty in obtaining new buses, CCT has been trying to keep the current fleet in good condition. That means repairing and replacing practically every system and piece of the bus as needed. Safety is paramount.

"We are in maintenance mode," Collins said, using both in-house and outside mechanics to work on the vehicles

Maintaining old buses doesn't come cheap, with both labor and parts costing more and more.

"We are having to shift budget around and plan for higher costs for the maintenance of the vehicles," Collin said, adding CCT is also preparing to pay more for the new buses when they do come in. A new bus is now estimated to cost around $130,000.

The good news is bus fares aren't going up. It is important to CCT that it remains a low-cost transportation option for passengers who need it.

"Our board is dedicated to keeping fares low for people," Collins said.

If the challenge of finding both drivers and buses can be met, Collins hopes CCT will be able to restore and expand its services — including buses on evenings and weekends, and maybe even routes to St. Cloud.

Passengers rely on CCT to get them to their doctor appointments, work shifts and social events, and it's a responsibility the CCT drivers, mechanics, board and other staff take seriously.

"The majority of our passengers don't have any other way to get to and from," Collins said. "We want to be that option."