The Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit company held four public meetings with the Cornell community to discuss the proposed emergency service cuts and adjustments the organization is making to its summer schedule last week.
TCAT said these changes were necessary due to chronic bus operator shortages, according to a press release.
“We thought we would be able to build up our ranks in time to avoid this, but despite ramped up recruitment efforts we were unable to fill those positions,” said Patty Poist, communications and marketing manager for TCAT.
Matthew Yarrow, a service analyst for TCAT, said TCAT has been “down significantly in our operator ranks for some time now.”
Yarrow explained that the number of drivers has decreased to the point where TCAT is about 10 drivers short from the optimal number of operators for their summer routes.
One reason for the shortage is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to become a bus operator due to stricter regulations and intensive training, according to Poist.
“You must be 21 to be a bus operator at TCAT, and by that time some people may have chosen different career paths,” Poist said. “There are a lot of regulations you have to follow like getting physicals, pass random drug and alcohol tests, and getting a [Commercial Driver’s License].”
Poist said the training process usually lasts at least six weeks.
TCAT shifts are also very long, and the TCAT works on a seniority system so new drivers get the less desirable shifts, according to Poist.
“We have what is known as a split shift,” Poist said. “[Bus operators] come in the morning, and then don’t drive for four to five hours midday. After, they go back out in service for rush hour for the evening.”
TCAT may also be having a hard time recruiting drivers due to the high the cost of living in Ithaca, according to Poist.
“It’s very expensive to live in this area, and a lot of our bus drivers have to commute from outside areas, which makes for an even longer day,” Poist said.
Stewart Douglas, transportation supervisor, added that some drivers travel from as far as Syracuse each day.
TCAT’s current solution for the spring involves hiring contract drivers, but this is only a short term solution, according to Poist.
“We use a firm in California, which brings in drivers from all over the country,” Poist said. “They are professionally trained already, but it’s also costly to us because we also house and have a per diem for them. It’s about $33,000 a week for 10 drivers, which is not viable.”
The TCAT board of directors decided to make strategic adjustments and cuts to the summer lines to make up for the driver shortage — because the use of contractors is no longer feasible — according to Yarrow.
“We are looking for inefficiencies and low ridership, when making these decisions,” Yarrow said.
Douglas added that while service cuts are “painful to us and to the public,” they are necessary to provide “reliable, good service to the community.”
TCAT is also aiming to avoid overcrowding and longer splits to make the work more attractive for current and future operators, according to Yarrow.
Poist added that she does not currently know what will happen to the fall’s schedule.
“We are hoping that we can build up our ranks of drivers, but in the meantime, it has been challenging,” Poist said.
Students can refer to the TCAT website for news and route changes and sign up for the Cornell listserv for Special Conditions for news related to buses and other school issues, according to the TCAT company and Cornell Transportation Services.