A severe shortage of bus drivers is forcing the Utah Transit Authority to slash service this winter, including routes that serve ski resorts.
Starting Dec. 11, transit officials will scale back — and in some instances suspend — service on 20 bus routes in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties. The cuts will not affect TRAX, FrontRunner or any other UTA services.
“These are emergency adjustments,” said Jay Fox, the transit authority’s executive director. “We’re hoping that this is not, obviously, a long-term issue, but we want to prioritize safe, reliable transit service.”
The decision is the result of the agency’s struggle to attract and retain drivers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a little bit of the perfect storm,” said Carlton Christensen, chair of the transit authority’s board of trustees.
The agency paused hiring in the throes of the pandemic and — like employers nationwide — has since been dogged by retirements, resignations and a pickier pool of potential workers.
Overall, the agency is down about 85 bus drivers from roughly 1,200 budgeted positions — a vacancy rate that amounts to about 7%.
Recruiting, retention efforts come up short
UTA has tried to stave off service disruptions, stretching existing staffers by asking them to voluntarily cover overtime shifts and keep buses running.
“But that gets old,” Christensen said. “That gets challenging.”
In an effort to retain operators, the transit authority reworked its wage scale, allowing existing employees to move up the income ladder faster. In 2021, UTA started paying new hires to go through training. Officials also brought in a consultant to help with recruiting.
During the summer, Christensen said, officials acknowledged the staffing issues simply were not improving.
Fox said the agency is paring routes that will affect the entire transit network the least.
“We’re trying to maintain service connections all day,” he said, “for the greatest number of people.”
Some routes, like the ski ones, are long, Christensen said. By reducing them, the transit authority will be able to free up resources and provide service elsewhere in the system.
This winter, skiers won’t have access to bus route 953, the line that runs from Midvale Fort Union Station to Snowbird and Alta. Service between Salt Lake City and Park City also will be scaled back.
Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, said in a written statement that his organization and its partner resorts were disappointed to hear of the reduced service so close to wintertime.
“However,” he said, “Utah’s ski resorts are working diligently with UTA to come up with potential solutions prior to opening day.”
Curtis Haring, executive director of the Utah Transit Riders Union, said the decision to decrease service is disappointing but not surprising for an agency that faces budgetary constraints.
“On the one hand, I can appreciate that UTA is in a tough spot,” Haring said. “But on the other hand, I think it’s important for local governments and the community to really step up and say, ‘No, this is something that is important to us.’”
The service reductions, he said in a follow-up email, should serve as a warning to the community of what happens when the transit system is not properly funded.
“How many more cars will now be going up and down our already clogged canyons because of the staffing shortage?” he said. “How many more red air days will we have because of all those added tailpipes? How will our local economy be harmed because trips to local shops won’t take place due to reductions?”
How UTA is trying to fix the problem
Officials hope the disruption will be temporary.
If staffing levels improve, service restoration would most likely start next August, when the agency makes its most substantial adjustments to the transit system.
Fox said UTA is working to overcome its staffing challenges by shifting its focus to making work schedules more predictable and attractive for new drivers, and by bringing on more supervisors to help younger operators.
“We’d like to put our energy right now into the recruitment and retention side in 2023,” Fox said, “as opposed to putting a lot of energy into, ‘How are we going to expand our routes?’”
Christensen said officials are looking to up the budget for operators to address the problem.
“While we’re still waiting for the tentative budget to come out, the board is committed to addressing these issues long term,” he said. “This is not something we’ve taken lightly.”
UTA pays trainees $20 an hour and increases the wage to more than $21 an hour after training. To apply, visit careers.rideuta.com.
Salt Lake County service area changes
39 • Adjusted from 15-minute to 30-minute service.
201 • Adjusted from 30-minute to hourly service.
218 • Adjusted from 30-minute to hourly service.
240 • Adjusted from 15-minute to 30-minute service, with changes to the actual route.
953 • Will be suspended.
972 • Adjusted from 15-minute to 30-minute service.
994 • Adjusted from 15-minute to 30-minute service.
Regional routes (Park City)
901 • Will be suspended.
902 • Shortened to 3900 South/Wasatch.
Ogden service area changes
603 • Certain trips will be suspended.
612 • Certain trips will be suspended.
625 • Adjusted from 30-minute to hourly service.
645 • Adjusted from 30-minute to hourly service.
650 • Will be suspended.
674 • Restructured to run more midday and fewer peak trips.
675 • Restructured to run more midday and fewer peak trips.
677 • Restructured to run more midday and fewer peak trips.
Regional routes (Ogden to Salt Lake City)
455 • Certain trips will be suspended.
470 • Certain trips will be suspended.
640 • Certain trips will be suspended.