The Central Ohio Transit Authority slashed service frequency on many routes in September, leaving passengers frustrated and wondering when the transit agency will be able to restore what was cut.
COTA officials say that depends on whether they can hire more drivers to bring the numbers back to where they were before the pandemic.
The transit agency currently has 592 drivers, but it needs 700. A year ago it had 637.
COTA has 14 drivers in training, which lasts nine weeks, with eight more about to begin. It has hired 55 drivers so far this year.
But that wasn't enough to head off reductions in service in September. Those included:
Decreasing the frequency of service from every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes on four of the most-used routes: No. 1 (Kenny/Livingston), No. 2 (East Main/North High), No. 10 (East Broad/West Broad) and the CMAX bus rapid transit service that has fewer stops on its route along Cleveland Avenue between OhioHealth in Westerville and Downtown Columbus.
Decreasing the frequency from every 30 minutes to every 60 minutes on the No. 4 (Indianola/Lockbourne), No. 31 (Hudson) and No. 102 (North High/Polaris Parkway) routes.
And COTA officials are considering reducing the frequency of weekend service on some routes in January.
COTA can't find enough drivers for bus routes
Joanna Pinkerton, COTA's president and CEO, said the transit agency plans to increase the frequency at some point, but it needs more drivers.
"I don't think people understand the workforce shortage," Pinkerton said. "It's the No. 1 issue facing us."
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To try to lure more driver applicants, COTA has boosted its starting training wage from $15.50 to $17.50 an hour effective immediately. After training, drivers start at $21.10 an hour, or $43,888 a year. Within five years, COTA said drivers are making more than $33 an hour, or $68,640 a year.
This past summer, COTA began a recruiting effort offering $2,000 to new student drivers and $2,500 to those who have a CDL-B, or Class B commercial driver's license. That is someone licensed to drive a vehicle with a gross weight of 26,001 pounds or more, such as a bus, or any vehicle that is designed to transport 16 or more passengers (including the driver).
Patrick Harris, COTA's vice president of external relations, said the transit agency has a lot of competition from companies that also are seeking drivers with commercial driver's licenses.
To help with recruiting, COTA employees who find someone who wants to become a driver receive a $500 bonus once that driver reaches 90 days on the job. COTA also launched TV, radio, newspaper, billboard and social media advertising to get drivers.
"It's a massive campaign to recruit," Pinkerton said.
She said she is concerned about older drivers reaching retirement age while the younger generation wants more flexible working conditions.
"We're working at creative ways of engaging people," Pinkerton said.
COTA spokesman Jeff Pullin said background checks also are eliminating potential candidates.
Officials from Transport Workers Union Local 208, which represents drivers and other COTA employees, could not be reached for comment.
In October 2021, drivers protested outside COTA's Downtown headquarters, frustrated with abuse from passengers, saying that COTA management wasn't doing enough to protect their safety. COTA created a strategic response team to deal with problem riders.
COTA ridership remains below pre-pandemic levels
Fixed-route ridership year-to-date is 6.45 million, slightly up from 6.2 million in 2021 as the area was rebounding from the pandemic, but down from 7.8 million in the COVID year of 2020, and sharply down by more than 50% from 2019, when COTA had 13.8 million riders by this time of the year.
Pinkerton pointed out that COTA has not cut service because ridership is lower.
COTA cut back on late-night service in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That has meant no late buses to bring fans home after night Ohio State football games. Pullin said the last Downtown lineup of buses is 10 p.m., with buses then pulling out to go to the end of their lines.
Zoey Charland of Reynoldsburg take the No. 10 and No. 5 (West 5th Avenue/Refugee) to get to work at a dog day care center on West 5th Avenue west of Olentangy River Road. She said she'd like to see bus service restored so they run until midnight.
"If I have to work late there is no way for me to get home," said Charland, who was waiting for a bus at a Downtown stop on Thursday.
She said a developmentally disabled person who she works with was recently stranded Downtown when two COTA buses went right past the posted stop.
COTA officials still have no plans to bring back the popular and free CBUS Downtown circulator. A lack of sponsorship is driving that decision, officials have said.
Despite all this, COTA plans to go ahead with an estimated $10 million in improvements in the next two years to its Downtown headquarters at 33 N. High St.
Pinkerton said the 10-story building needs updated heating and air-conditioning systems and elevators. The last major building reconditioning was 10 years ago, she said. About 200 people work in the building, she said.
Pullin said COTA does not expect to spend the full $10 million estimate but did not have spreadsheets breaking down costs for the work. The estimates are based on previous work.
According to information from Andy Biesterveld, COTA's chief engineering and mechanical officer, a 2021-2022 renovation cost approximately $2.4 million to create the seventh-floor GO! Mobility Lab to develop technologies and innovations for the system and complete general renovations on that floor, plus employee wellness facilities and a locker room on the lower level, and expanded employee break and vending areas on the second floor.
Planned renovations of the eighth, ninth and 10th floors would begin in 2023, and the third, fourth and fifth floors in 2024. Project engineers added a 30% contingency to the cost, not knowing the full scope of the work, then added a 10% inflation factor.
COTA officials cite an American Public Transportation Association study that showed 92% of transit agencies are having trouble finding new employees, with 66% having a tough time keeping workers and 71% cutting or delaying service increases because of staff shortages.
Meanwhile, COTA has no plans yet to place a sales tax hike on the ballot to raise money for a new bus rapid transit system initiative called LinkUs. In July, COTA officials said they were not proceeding with plans to place a 0.5% sales tax on the November general election ballot because of what one official called "economic challenges" in the region, including inflation hitting households hard.
The sales tax hike would raise $6 billion to help fund LinkUs and attract federal dollars that would start with a bus rapid transit line along the West Broad Street and East Main Street corridors through Downtown.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: COTA says it needs more bus drivers to restore service frequency