RFTA is considering bus service cuts this summer due to labor shortages
The labor shortage bug spreading among Roaring Fork Valley employers has bitten the public bus agency hard.
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority staff are advising the board to reduce the number of daily bus trips by 72 this summer. This would be a reduction of 7% compared to what is planned. Council will be asked to consider the proposal Thursday in a public hearing at its regular meeting in Carbondale.
“RFTA has been struggling with staffing shortages for the past 18 months, as have many employers across the country and in our region,” the staff memo reads. “RFTA has responded to these staff shortages by reducing service levels in the midst of the global pandemic or by asking more of our workforce.”
The memo continued: “RFTA has been in an uninterrupted hiring process since the winter of 2020/2021, but has made little progress in bolstering our ranks and meeting or maintaining our goal of 185 full-time CDL bus operators. “
In an interview on Monday, RFTA chief executive Dan Blankenship said a number of factors contributed to the inability to hire workers. The lack of affordable housing is significant.
RFTA has secured 60 to 70 units for rent on a seasonal basis in the winter, in addition to units it owns or has under extended lease, he said. In the summer, many of these 60-70 units are not available. For example, many units in the Marolt and Burlingame housing complexes are not available in the summer.
Another important factor is the cost of living in the area. Many prospects don’t accept positions once they learn of inflated prices in the area, Blankenship said. It also made it difficult for RFTA to retain its employees. These problems persist despite what he described as a favorable pay scale.
“We did a full-court press and tried everything we could to sign people up,” Blankenship said.
As it stands, RFTA estimates it would be 90% operational readiness for the summer. In other words, it would be 10% lower than the number of drivers needed to cover the regular service. And that’s before absences, retirements and unexpected issues, Blankenship said.
The proposed service reductions would put the bus agency at 105% operational availability.
The proposed service cuts would affect everything from RFTA’s bus rapid transit service to the frequency of the Maroon Bells shuttle.
BRT service makes fewer stops throughout the region between Aspen and Point Down the Valley. As proposed, the number of daily one-way BRT trips would be reduced to 116 from the planned 149. This represents a reduction of 33 trips or 22%.
The frequency of Maroon Bells shuttles would be reduced from 15 minutes to 20 minutes after 1 p.m. This would reduce daily commutes from 64 to 59, a reduction of 8%.
Some routes would not be affected, such as the free service to Aspen, Ride Glenwood Springs and the Carbondale Circulator.
Ironically, the reduction in service comes at a time when the board has begun experimenting with free fares to boost ridership. A bill that has passed the state Senate and is expected to pass the State House would provide millions in grants to allow transit operators to provide free service for at least a month over the next summers of 2022 and 2023, as reported by the Colorado Sun. The bill has the support of Governor Jared Polis.
RFTA staff and board enthusiastically discussed the possibilities of this legislation, but Blankenship said it was probably not realistic to consider offering a free service – theoretically increasing demand – to a when the agency has to cut services due to insufficient staffing levels.
The idea of a free service would be to encourage long-term changes in habits and encourage people to take the buses more frequently. It would be difficult, Blankenship said, if new passengers had difficulty boarding buses and, if they boarded, were required to stand. It wouldn’t make a good impression.
“I’m not optimistic that the staff would recommend doing this,” he said. There’s a better chance the agency could pre-plan a subsidy for free fares for part of the summer of 2023, he said.
RFTA will seek to add more affordable housing. It has various lands likely to lend themselves to development.
“Based on current conditions, we need a lot more housing,” Blankenship said.