(Community Transit)

(Community Transit)

Short-staffed Community Transit to cut 164 spring bus trips

The agency lost 8% of its drivers over a vaccine requirement. Hiring for those spots takes 12 to 16 weeks.

EVERETT — Community Transit plans to cut 164 weekday trips across Snohomish County next month because of employee shortages.

The agency announced its spring service changes to 25 routes Wednesday. The cuts are to take effect March 20 to “provide more predictability and reliability for riders,” many of whom have not returned to their pre-pandemic commutes.

Community Transit’s ridership is 55% of what it was before the pandemic.

Instead of dealing with delayed or missed trips, the agency cut trips with low ridership, mostly on routes to King County.

They are the latest reductions for Community Transit. Last month the agency cut 36 daily bus trips due to staffing levels, and in mid-February the driver shortage hit the express 500-series routes into King County, which the agency operates on a contract with Sound Transit.

“We are consistently focused on providing reliable service that meets community needs,” Community Transit CEO Ric Ilgenfritz said in a news release. “These changes will ensure we are able to operate all service scheduled and provide the right level of service for the current level of ridership.”

Some of the trip cuts are to routes that serve the Northgate light rail station in north Seattle. Community Transit staff projected an increase in ridership on the 800-series routes after the light rail station opened in October and the University of Washington resumed in-person classes.

But riders didn’t return in the numbers expected.

Fewer bus trips means fewer drivers are needed, giving the agency a staffing reprieve.

Community Transit lost 61 employees, including 29 drivers, because of a vaccine requirement that had a Dec. 31 deadline.

“We were hopeful to retain as many employees as possible,” Ilgenfritz said in an email. “About 8% of our drivers ended up leaving due to the vaccination policy, which was more than we had hoped for but similar to what other organizations have experienced when implementing a vaccine policy.”

Community Transit leaders offered overtime for other drivers to cover the gaps. That worked until omicron surged. Last month 69 employees had COVID-19.

The agency scaled back overtime to avoid exhausting workers, calling it unsustainable.

Between the announcement in October and service changes in February, the agency hired 27 employees. Only two were drivers, though 13 applicants had interviews scheduled last week.

Even as other agencies rethink their vaccine mandates, Community Transit does not intend to end or alter its employee policy, spokesman Martin Munguia said in an email.

Everett Transit, Snohomish County’s other major bus service, is not planning trip reductions, city spokesperson Julio Cortes said in an email. The city did not issue a vaccine requirement for transit workers.

“Our staffing is sufficient to maintain current levels of service,” he said.

Community Transit is hiring. It can take 12 to 16 weeks for a new driver to take over a route. Even those with bus driving experience must go through Community Transit’s 10-week training course, which comes with pay and benefits.

Starting pay for drivers is $23.47 an hour through training. It rises to $27.73 after graduation.

If more drivers get hired, the agency could add trips before the September service change.

Community Transit isn’t printing schedules for the March shift in case they change mid-year.

Routes with changes

• Swift Green Line, 112, 113, 119, 120, 130, 196, 402, 410, 412, 416, 417, 422, 425, 435, 810, 821, 860, 871, 880.

• Sound Transit express 510, 511, 512, 532, 535.

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

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