Too few drivers means service cuts, longer waits for GoRaleigh bus riders

·4 min read
Richard Stradling/rstadling@newsobserver.com

Faced with a shortage of drivers, GoRaleigh plans to pare back service next month by running buses less frequently.

Passengers on 11 routes that can now catch a bus every 30 minutes will have to wait up to an hour. And Route 19, the Apollo Heights bus that now runs through Southeast Raleigh every 15 minutes, will come every half hour.

The changes go into effect Sept. 11.

GoRaleigh hopes they are temporary and can be rolled back early next year. But to restore service to its current level, the city needs to fill about 30 vacant positions, said David Walker, the city’s transportation supervisor, bringing the number of drivers back up to about 215.

The empty jobs mean that GoRaleigh can’t complete 150 to 200 scheduled trips per week, Walker said. That comes out to between 2% and 3% of the roughly 1,000 trips GoRaleigh makes each day.

“It’s not incredibly huge,” said Nathan Spencer, a member of the Raleigh Transit Authority. “But for the person trying to get to work, that’s big.”

Spencer also heads WakeUp Wake County, an advocacy group that supports transit and has been urging the city to address the looming driver shortage since last year. Fierce competition for people with commercial driver’s licenses has also forced other transit agencies, including GoTriangle and Chapel Hill Transit, to cut service.

The cuts have frustrated efforts by local governments in the Triangle to improve transit and make it a viable alternative to driving. After Wake County voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transit in 2016, GoRaleigh, GoTriangle and GoCary used some of the money to establish new routes and increase the frequency on others.

“Needless to say WakeUP Wake County is disappointed,” Spencer wrote in an email about the planned cutbacks. “We tried really hard to help staff avoid this very issue, and this ‘temporary’ change is not one in the direction we have seen the city moving over the past few years.”

GoRaleigh is pushing to find drivers. It pays prospective drivers for training needed to get a commercial license, and last month it raised starting wages for drivers from just under $17 per hour to $19 per hour, rising to $23.31 by the third year.

The higher pay is helping, Walker said; GoRaleigh made conditional offers to eight new drivers at a job fair over the weekend. But it can take four to eight weeks to get a new driver licensed and trained, and pulling experienced drivers off their routes to train new ones is actually exacerbating the problem in the short term, Walker said.

“We will continually monitor the bus operator shortage and as new employees are available we will look to return to full service as quickly as possible,” he said.

Ridership remains below pre-pandemic levels

Walker said GoRaleigh used passenger demand to determine which routes to run less frequently.

Overall, ridership is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people stopped commuting or found alternative ways to get around. GoRaleigh served just over 4 million passengers in the fiscal year ending June 30, down from nearly 5.4 million over the same full year before the pandemic.

But ridership has been growing since its low point in 2020. GoRaleigh carried 21.3% more passengers in June than the same month a year before, and ridership is now at about 83% of pre-pandemic levels.

Cutting back on service could undermine that trend, Spencer said. To be effective, a bus should come every 15 minutes or less, he said. And while he is troubled about doubling that time to a half hour, his top concern is the number of routes changing to hourly service.

“Hourly service is effectively not service at all,” Spencer said.

Walker counters that riders will benefit from knowing the bus they’re waiting for will actually show up.

“Some frequencies will be reduced,” he said, “but the overall reliability in service will be increased.”