Chapel Hill Transit is facing a shortage of bus operators that county officials say may lead to increased wait times for riders.
In early August, Chapel Hill Transit resumed service for all routes. But with the current operator shortage, some schedule adjustments are in place.
The J, NS, NU, RU and S route schedules have been altered with some trips removed, according to a press release from the Town of Chapel Hill. It also states Carolina Livery, a charter bus service, will operate three of its routes – B, CCX and JFX.
The Pittsboro Street and University Drive stops are permanently closed, the release said, and the Manning Drive stop is temporarily closed due to construction. The Manning Drive stop should reopen in late November.
Brian Litchfield, Chapel Hill Transit director, said while these temporary adjustments are not ideal, he is hopeful for a return to full operations within the next few months.
Litchfield said these alterations are a result of unprecedented understaffing, with 32 full-time operator positions currently vacant.
“It’s a significant number of us,” Litchfield said. “In a typical year, going into August, we might have somewhere between five to eight vacancies. We’re able to work with that, but we’ve never seen 32 before.”
The current vacancies are in part due to a 16-month hiring freeze — a consequence of the pandemic, Litchfield said. During that time no new operators were hired, and some seasoned drivers made the decision to retire after years of service.
“While we hated to see those folks go, we certainly understood the decision they made was best for them and their families,” he said.
In an attempt to decrease vacant positions, Jeffrey Sullivan, community outreach manager for Chapel Hill Transit, said they have collaborated with other transportation services — such as GoTriangle, GoRaleigh and GoCary — to recruit potential operators through hosting job fairs.
Chapel Hill Transit has temporarily shifted the focus of its training staff to recruiting operators, Sullivan added. The team has used social media posts and physical signage to advertise the open positions.
“We're trying a little bit of everything to get the word out there and demystify what our recruitment is and what the job is to make it as easy as possible for people,” he said.
But one roadblock to recruitment efforts is the requirement that operators must hold a commercial driver’s license, which is not easily obtainable, Sullivan said. Individuals who hold that license are also sought by other transit agencies, he added.
“Those people are in high demand right now,” Sullivan said. “It’s cutting through the noise of companies who can maybe pay a little more than the Town is able to pay, and communicating the benefits we offer that they don’t.”
In the meantime, Sullivan said he encourages riders to exercise patience for the system and treat operators with kindness and compassion.
“Our operators never stopped working through this pandemic,” he said. “They’ve been on the front lines, interacting with anybody in the public sphere, putting themselves at risk of exposure. Being an operator is not an easy job.”
Riders may need to arrive at their stops early, to account for bus over-capacity and late arrivals, Sullivan said.
All in all, Sullivan said the decision to return to near-full operations was made because of the importance of its services for the community.
“We would not serve if it was not useful to anybody,” Sullivan said. “As Chapel Hill and Carrboro are getting back to normal, we really wanted to make sure we were providing full access. It was really important for us to reconnect people who have been disconnected from our system during the pandemic.”