Just how dire is the bus driver shortage in northern Michigan? From local schools to public transportation, leaders are fretting that the issue could force significant reductions of service – and are trying everything they can to recruit new drivers and fill the gaps.
Bus drivers and busing routes
Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS): According to Ginger Smith, executive director of marketing and communications for TCAPS, the district currently has 50 bus drivers assigned to morning routes and 52 to afternoon routes. Those drivers are trying to cover the 53 busing routes that TCAPS has on the schedule each morning and afternoon. TCAPS has said that its busing routes cover “more than 3,000 bus stops in a 300-square-mile area” and that its drivers collectively “travel more than 7,000 miles per day.”
Per Smith, approximately 40 percent of the general education population at TCAPS is “utilizing some combination of school bus transportation to or from school” each day. Based on preliminary Count Day totals, TCAPS has 8,937 students enrolled for the 2021-22 school year, which would put the number of students relying on busing at more than 3,500. In addition, Smith notes that “about 100 non-public school students” in the area utilize TCAPS bus services daily, including small numbers of students from Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools and Traverse City Christian School.
Dean Transportation: Dean Transportation is a busing contractor based in Lansing that provides bus services for Northwest Education Services (North Ed, formerly Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District), as well as for many other districts and ISDs throughout the state. According to Courtney Bollman, Dean’s director of community engagement, the company “currently operates 26 daily routes for North Ed,” which “transport special education students to programs throughout the five-county Grand Traverse region.”
Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA): Per Eric Lingaur, BATA’s director of communications and development, the public transit entity has “approximately 117 employees,” 81 of whom are bus drivers. At full-service capacity, BATA offers 11 fixed routes in and around Traverse City and throughout Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. BATA drivers also cover services for Link On-Demand (BATA’s ride-hailing service, which is comparable to Uber or Lyft) and Village Link (BATA’s reservation service “for rural area riders that are unable to access a fixed-route stop”).
TCAPS: TCAPS currently has 13 job openings for bus drivers.
Dean: At the moment, Dean Transportation isn’t actually desperate for any new school bus or van drivers. The company’s current team, Bollman says, is able to cover Dean’s 26 current North Ed routes. However, she does note that Dean is currently “looking to fill nine bus aide positions, plus add additional school bus and van drivers for new routes,” as well as to hire substitute drivers and bus aides in preparation for cold and flu season.
BATA: In total, BATA has 18 job openings. 13 of those are for bus drivers, with the other five split between customer service and/or dispatch representative jobs (3), technology technicians (1), and bus mechanics (1).
Services in jeopardy
TCAPS: Smith declined to disclose what percentage of TCAPS’ bus routes are in jeopardy due to driver shortages, noting that it’s “unknown” and “changes daily.” However, in an email sent to district families last week, TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner admitted that the driver shortage was “so severe that the district has reduced routes, lengthened ride times, and increased the number of riders on each bus.” VanWagoner warned parents that “maintaining our regular transportation services may become impossible” this winter, due to cold and flu season and potential spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Dean: While Dean is able to cover North Ed’s busing needs for now, Bollman says the company doesn’t have much of a staffing buffer, which could create problems this winter. Already, Dean is counting on “the support of 7-9 North Ed classroom paraprofessionals to augment Dean’s in-house bus aide staff.” The company is also relying on some of its own office staff to fill in when drivers aren’t able to work.
“With few sub drivers and [with] office staff sometimes having to drive, there is very little margin for coverage with flu season coming, or as a result of any pandemic-related quarantines,” Bollman explains. “[Those issues] might affect staff or their families, which can result in delays – or at worst, canceled routes, sometimes with little advance notification.”
BATA: Lingaur says BATA is currently operating at about 75 percent of its route capacity “due to limited staff resources.” That reduced capacity is occurring even as demand for busing services in the area ticks back up again in the wake of 2020. “Over the past three months, from July through September, we’ve seen a 17 percent increase in ridership year-over-year on our fixed routes,” Lingaur shares. “[We’ve also seen] a 115 percent increase in ridership for our Link On-Demand services from 2020 to 2021.”
Strategies for bridging the gap
TCAPS: Smith says TCAPS currently has multiple employees in non-transportation departments (14 in the morning, 12 in the afternoon) who have gone through the training necessary to drive a bus if there is an emergency gap that needs to be filled.
The district has also increased its wage scale for bus drivers. During the…
Read More: From Public Transportation To Schools, Bus Driver Shortage Critical