Could a 15-minute bus line be possible this winter? The city’s transit manager believes so

Hiring four more bus drivers may be the difference between a 30-minute and 15-minute service time for the main bus route this winter, according to City Transit Manager Jonathan Flint

During the city’s budget retreat on Tuesday, Oct. 4, Flint brought Steamboat Springs City Council up to speed. 

“If we are able to be fully staffed this winter, then we will be able to provide 15-minute service on the main line,” Flint said. 

By main line, Flint was referring to the red and green bus routes, which operate hand-in-hand as part of a larger loop that services most of the city. 

He told council that typically the red-green “Christmas line” would take an hour and 20 minutes to complete, with service intervals of 20 minutes. Traffic congestion and crowded buses, however, increased the time it takes drivers to complete the main loop to an hour and a half. 

Despite the longer route time, Flint said staffing will determine the time between service intervals.  

“Last year, had we been fully staffed, we would’ve been able to have two different routes serving to provide 10-minute service,” Flint said, referring to the green and red bus lines. “But at a minimum, we provided the 20-minute service this year.”

Despite investments by the city for recruiting and retaining staff, including subsidized employee housing and pay raises, staff shortages continue to be a challenge in the public transit sector in Steamboat and across the country. 

During the morning of Sept. 27, Flint and his department had hired enough drivers for a 15-minute service line. By noon, however, a driver resigned, and more misfortune was on the way. 

“Two days later, we were ghosted by three applicants,” Flint said. 

That snag left four bus driver positions open before the winter season, but Flint and his department remain optimistic they can have 37 drivers ready to work the winter season. 

“It’s just an ebb and flow process,” said Tyler Kern, the city’s transit operations supervisor. “They interview and accept the job and seem really excited, and then they pack up to move. Some of them run into barriers or realize maybe it’s too big of a process to accomplish and actually get here.”

Kern is in charge of recruiting drivers. In August, he traveled to Alaska to recruit motorcoach operators, which Flint described as “very successful.”

Kern said 19 recruits are currently in the pipeline.  

“Out of our current group that we hired, only one lives locally in Craig,” Kern said. “Everybody else needs housing.”

While the city has been able to offer housing by subleasing and subsidizing rental units, the long-term plan is to build employee housing for the city’s Transit and Parks and Recreation departments near the Steamboat Springs Transit Center on 13th Street.  

The city also created a recruitment video, broadcast ads through Yellowstone Public Radio and invested in traveling to meet applicants in person.

“So we are working on replacing those that have backed out,” Kern said. “We have 20 days to go before the class starts.”

The class Kern referred to includes instructions on how to acquire a commercial driver’s license, which the city provides, but finding people willing to obtain a CDL has been a challenge, according to Flint. 

“There’s a huge nationwide shortage in individuals who are interested in becoming a commercial driver,” Flint said. “So we’ve got a lot working against us.”

According to a policy brief published in March by the American Public Transportation Association, 92% of public transit agencies reported having difficulty hiring new employees, and bus operations positions specifically are the most difficult to fill. APTA’s data also says 71% of transit agencies reported having to either cut service or delay service because of worker shortages. 

Flint said that, ideally, he would like to return to the transit schedule Steamboat had back in 2008, when buses came through frequently enough that people didn’t worry about the bus schedule and simply walked to a bus stop and waited for a ride. Flint said the system in 2008, which offered service about every 10 minutes, was the best his department has ever had, and the approximately 1.2 million passengers serviced that year was the highest ever in Steamboat.  

“I would love to return to something like that,” Flint said. “I don’t know that we can hire enough drivers to do that. We can certainly give it a try.”

Flint also said the city’s fleet of 25 buses — 18 of which are dedicated to local routes — would need to be expanded to offer a bus schedule similar to the system from 2008.  

“Our average bus per hour carries 41 passengers,” Flint said. “The nationwide average is about 29, so that’s an issue for us as well. Our buses are very full.”

Flint explained that it’s a testament to the city’s efficient use of equipment that Steamboat Springs Transit is able to move so many passengers with such a small fleet. 

“I feel pretty confident that we’re going to be able to reach a staffing level where we can do that 15-minute service,” Flint said. 

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