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Chapel Hill Transit bus driver numbers improve, although still not at full operation

A bus drives down Colombia Street on Oct. 3, 2022.

Chapel Hill Transit struggled to fill bus driver shortages over the COVID-19 pandemic. As the town adapts to post-pandemic life, the transit system is still recovering. 

According to Chapel Hill Transit Director Brian Litchfield, they are at functioning at 86 percent of full operation. Bus driver vacancies have been cut in half, leaving about 20 positions to be filled. 

With complications and safety concerns from the pandemic still present, Litchfield said finding bus drivers has proven to be a challenge – especially with long work hours late at night or early in the morning. 

“There's a lot of opportunities to work remotely now,” he said. “Driving a bus is certainly something that requires not only skill to drive the bus but also customer service and it's something that folks, really, really have to want to do in order to do it.”

Chapel Hill Transit operator Tammy Price also said she felt the effects of being unable to work overtime due to the reduced bus routes. 

“The income I was used to making dropped tremendously,” she said. “So I had to readjust everything.”

This is a result of efforts by both Litchfield and members of the Chapel Hill Public Transit Committee to increase benefits for bus drivers, he said. He said these include sign-on bonuses, recruitment bonuses and an hourly wage increase from $17 to $19 for full-time employees that was approved earlier this year. 

He added they’ve also been able to fully restore some routes, such as the S route, that were unavailable due to vacancies.

Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils, who is also a member of the Chapel Hill Public Transit Committee, said the committee’s goal is to focus its efforts toward being more appealing to potential drivers. 

“We're trying to be more present at job fairs and other opportunities to get the word out about the availability of positions, and also making sure that our pay is competitive with other systems and our benefits are competitive with other systems,” he said. 

Chapel Hill Transit is also making the positions more accessible to anyone who wants to work for them, regardless of whether or not they hold a Commercial Driver’s License, which is required to operate a transit vehicle, Litchfield said.

Chapel Hill Transit will help with obtaining permits and training so even an individual with little to no experience can work for the organization, he added.

In order to fill vacancies, Chapel Hill Transit also opened applications for student drivers at the beginning of the fall semester.

Currently, student driver applications are going through background checks before they can begin the training process, Litchfield said. Though an exact time frame is unknown, he expects students to begin being able to drive by next semester. 

The new position would allow students to work part-time for the transit system with a starting salary of $16 per hour. 

“We would work with them to develop schedules on a semester-by-semester basis that would work for their class schedules,” Litchfield said.

Though no one knows an exact date for when the system will be back to full capacity, the Public Transit Committee's ultimate goal is to fulfill pre-pandemic plans to implement a short-range transit system meant to increase bus frequency and improve overall service. 

“In my mind, there are two important things that will come out of filling these bus driver vacancies,” Seils said. “One is getting our service up to 100 percent, and two is full implementation.”

@DTHCityState | 

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