A Sound Transit express bus in October 2021 at the Northgate light rail station in Seattle. Several express routes operated by Community Transit into Bellevue and Seattle have had daily trips cut because of driver shortages. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

A Sound Transit express bus in October 2021 at the Northgate light rail station in Seattle. Several express routes operated by Community Transit into Bellevue and Seattle have had daily trips cut because of driver shortages. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Driver shortage cuts bus routes between Snohomish, King counties

Sound Transit cut 18 daily trips on express routes through March 19. Meanwhile, Community Transit is hiring.

EVERETT — Driver shortages caused Sound Transit to cut 18 daily weekday bus trips on express routes between King and Snohomish counties.

Similar problems with canceled or delayed trips over the past month have also hit Sound Transit’s other express routes, operated by King County Metro and Pierce Transit.

The Snohomish County-centric service changes took effect Monday and are to last through March 19. Routes 510, 511, 512, 513 and 532 lost trips.

Since 1999, Sound Transit has contracted with Community Transit to operate its 500-series express routes. Community Transit staff estimated Sound Transit would pay out $19.4 million in reimbursements this year.

In turn, Community Transit contracts with First Transit, a private company, for most of its 400-series commuter and express routes into King County. That deal is worth $21.9 million this year in Community Transit’s budget.

The private company’s drivers have been hit by COVID-19, similar to the rest of Snohomish County and the state.

“The extreme rise in Omicron cases is affecting all industries, including transportation,” First Transit spokesperson Jay Brock said in an email.

First Transit does not require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, unlike Community Transit and Sound Transit. Brock did not respond to a question about the number of vaccinated employees.

A surge of 69 COVID-19 cases last month among Community Transit employees prompted temporary service cuts for 36 daily trips on other routes.

It came on the heels of the agency’s Dec. 31 deadline for full vaccination that caused 61 employees, including 29 drivers, to leave.

As of Feb. 10, Community Transit reported five coronavirus cases. Over 99% of employees were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Since Community Transit CEO Ric Ilgenfritz announced the vaccine requirement in October, the agency has hired 27 employees.

Only two were drivers, who must complete and graduate from 10 weeks of training that is paid and with benefits. Drivers make $23.47 an hour during training and $27.73 an hour after graduation.

Hiring a driver can take 12 to 16 weeks, from application to serving a route.

Community Transit offers overtime to drivers to fulfill service hours, but managers want to avoid burnout in employees, Ilgenfritz said during the board meeting Feb. 3.

The agency aims to expand service in the coming years. That will require more employees.

“We need to hire over 100 new coach operators to meet those growth targets,” Ilgenfritz said. “We’re starting that from a reduced base now.”

Interviews were scheduled with 13 driver applicants this week, spokesperson Martin Munguia said.

First Transit is hiring drivers, as well, with starting pay at $21.19 per hour for employees on Sound Transit routes. The company pays for training time, too, and offers a $2,500 bonus for new hires who already have a commercial driver’s license.

Transit operations continued throughout the pandemic as an essential operation. Drivers can’t work from home.

Some agencies, including Everett Transit, installed plastic barriers around fixed-route drivers. Community Transit has not.

Community Transit invested in new air filtration devices for buses, as well as masks and hand sanitizer.

Suspended Sound Transit express trips

Route 510 southbound from Everett Station at 4:49 and at 5:48 a.m.;

• Route 511 northbound from Northgate at 3:19 p.m.;

• Route 512 southbound from Everett Station at 8:58, 11:27 a.m., 1:37, and 3:31 p.m.; and northbound from Northgate at 9:59 a.m., 12:29, 1:09, 2:19 p.m. and 2:39 p.m.;

• Route 513 southbound from Seaway Transit Center at 6:42 and 7:30 a.m., and northbound from Northgate at 4:39 p.m.

• Route 532 northbound from Bellevue at 3:12, 4:31 and 5:11 p.m.

Ben Watanabe: bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.

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