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COTA looks to change 16 weekend routes next year due to driver shortage

A COTA bus in downtown Columbus in May 2020.
Ryan Hitchcock
/
WOSU

A shortage of bus drivers is forcing the Central Ohio Transit Authority to make more cuts to its service to its weekend service.

Some busses are already crowded after recent cuts and riders worry the situation will get even worse. COTA officials heard from passengers concerned about service reductions coming in January at a hearing Thursday night.

One nurse who did not give her name at the hearing told COTA leaders she works a 13-hour night shift, and loves to use COTA, but lately, it hasn’t been a positive experience.

“There's a lot of times where the No. 1 that goes to Bethel was so packed. Yesterday, it was so bad that I actually took pictures of it because there was so many people on this bus that people actually started yelling at the bus driver, ‘you cannot let anybody else on," she said.

The situation will not improve until staffing levels do. At the hearing, COTA announced another round of route reductions coming. But service planner Amber Boyd said the changes COTA wants to make to 16 of its routes will not affect weekday runs.

“Based on our current operator levels and what we're projecting into early 2023, is proposing to reduce frequency on Saturday and Sunday," Boyd said.

Some of the service changes are to ease bus transfers on passengers, but many of the adjustments are cutting back the frequency a line runs.

“Our primary focus for January is to reallocate the resources based on need,” she said.

Spokesperson Jeff Pullin said that COTA simply does not have enough drivers.

“COTA will continue to adjust transit schedules due to the unprecedented workforce challenges. Our hope is to make those adjustments to improve service reliability, meaning that the buses will arrive on time when they're scheduled to do so, and help minimize adverse service impacts to our customers and staff," he said.

A couple of speakers at the hearing said those cuts have led to overcrowding, sometimes making the bus unrideable and creating waits as long as an hour.

Boyd said COTA wants to rectify the situation and will study which stops are overloaded and attempt to add additional trips.

“It is it's an extreme disservice to have someone waiting for, honestly, over 30 minutes at some point, it is difficult. And we're really hoping to have rectified this operator situation, just enough so that we are able to return some of those lines to a decent frequency and at least enough to have nobody being passed up at the stops," Boyd said.

Pullin said transit systems across the country are struggling to hire and retain bus drivers. He hopes service frequency will improve once COTA finds more people to hire. While some hires have been found, it hasn't been enough to keep up with demand.

“We're hoping to add service in future trimesters when we're able to hire, train and retain more operators," Pullin said.

The transit system makes service adjustments three times each year.

He said the recruitment campaign is “robust," with a focus on marketing the open positions and adding incentives. COTA offers a $2,000 hiring bonus, with an extra $500 if the new hire has a commercial driver’s license.

“If you are (or) if you know of somebody who is interested in being an operator, please ask them to apply at COTA.com/careers. The starting wage for operators and training has been increased to $17.50 an hour," Pullin said.

That goes up to over $20 an hour after training and continues to rise with seniority.

Pullin admits some of the shifts available to the newest hires are not that desirable. The best shifts go to drives with the most seniority. Pullin said administrators are negotiating with the union, to give more leeway in shift selection.

COTA plans to hold another public hearing at noon Tuesday. Changes will not be finalized until after the hearing. Once they are, COTA will present them again to the public in December, before they take hold.

Lines 1-11, 22, 31, 61, 102 and the CMAX routes could be affected. The detailed adjustments will be explained in the hearing Tuesday.

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Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. Fox joined the WOSU newsroom from the Tribune Chronicle/Vindicator in the Youngstown area, where she’d been a reporter since 2014. Contact Renee at renee.fox@wosu.org.