New federal training requirements and a tight labor market have made it difficult for Maine’s three largest cities to staff municipal bus routes.
Driver shortages are especially tough in Bangor, where more than one-quarter of positions are vacant, according to assistant city manager Courtney O’Donnell.
The city will temporarily suspend Saturday service on the Community Connector starting June 18 to better staff bus routes during the work week.
The Community Connector has 11 driver vacancies, O’Donnell said.
“We are down so many folks that many of our drivers have to pick up doubles, and that’s really how we’ve gotten by up until this point,” she said. “By shutting off Saturday service, it will allow us to reallocate everyone Monday through Friday and keep all of [those] existing or current routes open and functioning.”
The city has been working with its union to increase bus driver wages and advertise open positions in different places, O’Donnell said.
But the pandemic, along with a new law that requires those seeking a commercial driver’s license (CDL) or passenger endorsement take an approved in-person training course, has created a “perfect storm” when it comes to recruiting new drivers,” O’Donnell added.
“We were already facing a driver shortage, but this new law that went into effect has really made it harder to get folks who may have their CDL but not the passenger endorsement actually qualified and properly licensed to drive for us,” she said. “We are seeking ways to create an in-house, qualified course, but that is an effort that we are currently undertaking.”
She’s hopeful the city can hire at least three-to-five new drivers by the end of the summer so Saturday service can be restored.
“I would like to say that by the time the transit center opens this fall we’re back up to full service, but that is just a hope,” O’Donnell said. “At this point we’re just taking it day by day. Until we start seeing qualified applicants come through and we get that course up and running, it’s really hard to say how long this change will last. But we really do hope that it’s temporary in nature and no more than necessary.”
Most routes on the Greater Portland Metro bus system are fully staffed, but only because one is running on a summer schedule. The city will eventually use American Rescue Plan funning to hire 10 more drivers, on top of filling current openings, said Metro spokeswoman Denise Beck.
“Metro has plans to have enhancements on our routes, more frequency and add some holiday schedules and things like that, but currently the funding is not available,” she said.
Metro has about 14 current openings, which include at least 10 bus drivers, three mechanics and one fleet care operator, Beck said.
And in Auburn and Lewiston, some CityLink drivers are working overtime and part-time drivers are working full-time, according to Larry Allen, transit program manager for Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee.
CityLink’s contractor, Western Maine Transportation Services, has been able to maintain “adequate” staffing levels to support its six-day operations, Allen said.
“Like most driving positions for any transportation service, we are only a couple of illnesses or absences away from needing to make temporary service adjustments ourselves, so we are thankful every day for the driving corps we have that continue to keep our community connected,” he said in an email.