Eric Wilkinson, a Community Transit driver of 17 years, departs from Seaway Transit Center in an empty 280 bus Friday, in Everett. The route is proposed to keep its current service despite trip cuts to nine other routes in March. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Eric Wilkinson, a Community Transit driver of 17 years, departs from Seaway Transit Center in an empty 280 bus Friday, in Everett. The route is proposed to keep its current service despite trip cuts to nine other routes in March. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Driver shortage prompts Community Transit’s trip cut proposal

Reducing service, by 78 trips total on 9 routes, could make for more reliable arrivals and departures in March.

Before Community Transit service grows, in line with the Sound Transit light rail reaching Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace in late 2024, it will likely shrink.

For the third consecutive semiannual service change, the Snohomish County bus and vanpool agency is proposing trip reductions for several routes. The changes would take effect in March.

By dropping a proposed 78 weekday trips, Community Transit hopes to stabilize routes and avoid the problem it has had this year with trips canceled on short notice.

“We know that the most important thing to our traveling public is a reliable schedule,” system planning manager Chris Simmons said during a Facebook Live video earlier this month. “It doesn’t do any good to publish a schedule if we can’t actually meet the schedule.”

Initially, the proposal was to cut trips on 12 routes. But recently staff removed the proposed changes for routes 270, 271 and 280 that would have terminated the service at Everett Station. Instead, those routes will continue as normal to the Seaway Transit Center near Boeing in south Everett.

Proposed cuts:

• Route 101: Mariner Park & Ride to Aurora Village (suspend seven trips out of 73)

• Route 105: Mariner Park & Ride/Hardeson Road to Bothell (suspend four trips out of 40)

• Route 115: McCollum Park Park & Ride to Aurora Village (suspend 12 trips out of 60)

• Route 116: Silver Firs to Edmonds (suspend 13 trips out of 62)

• Route 119: Ash Way Park & Ride to Mountlake Terrace (suspend 1 trip out of 33)

• Route 196: Ash Way Park & Ride to Edmonds (suspend 17 trips out of 50)

• Route 201: Smokey Point to Lynnwood (suspend 11 trips out of 62)

• Route 202: Smokey Point to Lynnwood (suspend 11 trips out of 61)

• Route 412: Silver Firs to Seattle (suspend two trips out of 12)

The specific trips that could be eliminated weren’t specified yet, because it’s likely that most of Community Transit’s route schedules will adjust by spring, Simmons said. A major reason is that because of the proposed cuts, many of the affected route schedules will adjust to ensure their connections with other routes or other transit agencies are maintained.

A shortage of drivers and mechanics is largely driving the reduction, Community Transit leaders said in interviews and meetings.

“A lot of that has to do with the vaccine mandate that CT implemented as of Jan. 1,” driver union president Kathleen Custer said. “We lost a lot of employees because of that.”

After the agency required employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine or have an exemption and accommodations by Jan. 1, 59 employees quit or were fired.

Similar to other industries and transit agencies across the country, filling those vacancies along with expected attrition, has proven challenging.

Since Jan. 1, Community Transit hired 53 drivers and six mechanics. Over that same time, 49 drivers or trainees left, as well as five mechanics.

That slow growth is despite a focus on recruiting at career and job fairs and trade schools, a $5,000 signing bonus for new drivers, a retention bonus for current drivers this year and other efforts.

“It’s been difficult to attract and retain employees within this industry,” Custer said. “It is nationwide, it is not anything we are experiencing alone.”

To meet its planned service expansion in 2024, the agency needs around 450 drivers. About 320 were employed as of this writing.

“We haven’t been able to grow as quickly as we initially hoped,” director of planning and development Roland Behee told The Daily Herald.

Meanwhile ridership has continued to recover from the cliff-dive it took during the first year of the pandemic. Last week, Community Transit had over 20,000 boardings per day, which is still lower than before the pandemic.

Commuter routes, especially into Seattle, have been slower to recover, Behee said. While employers in King County may push for a return to more in-person work, it’s coming at the same time as thousands of layoffs from major tech companies.

“Our key priority on this is that we’re really trying to account for the workforce we have right now and improve that reliability and consistency for riders,” Behee said.

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