OCEAN CITY— Getting more done with less has been the mantra for the town’s municipal bus system thus far this summer with a driver shortage still acute.
During Tuesday’s Transportation Committee meeting, members got their typical briefing on bus driver recruitment and retention efforts and the message has remained consistent. Finding qualified transportation department employees including bus drivers has been particularly challenging because of the special skill sets needed, including, in most cases, commercial driver’s licenses (CDL), drug screening and other training and qualifications.
At peak times in recent years, the town has employed as many as 150 municipal bus drivers with the seasonal employees, full-timers and part-time school bus drivers that fill out the ranks during the summer season. Currently the number of bus drivers available stands at 56, including 46 seasonal drivers and 10 full-time drivers.
Operations Manager George Peake pointed out other departments in town are facing the same challenges.
“We’re struggling with the same trends as some of our other departments,” he said. “We’re barely putting out as many as we did last year. It’s a function of staffing issues.”
Mayor Rick Meehan asked if the fewer deployments were related to the number of drivers available or the number of buses available. Peake said it was largely a staffing issue, although there have been times when buses were down.
“We don’t have a situation where drivers are coming in and don’t have buses available,” he said. “We do have some buses out of service though.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said supply chain issues have made getting parts for the buses out of service challenging.
“We have three buses waiting for the same part,” he said. “They are cannibalizing the other down buses for parts in some cases. That’s how we’re surviving right now.”
Adkins said it’s not an entirely dire situation.
“If deployments are trending down and ridership is up, that’s a good thing,” he said. “We’re doing more with less and we’re not getting any complaints.”
Adkins said returning to that 150-mark seen in years past will not likely happen given the current climate. However, he said the town’s articulating buses (artics) were helping the limited number of drivers available meet the demand.
“I don’t see going back to hiring 150 people,” he said. “It’s not going to happen. The artics are making a huge difference though.”
Transit Manager Rob Shearman said the buses are full during most peak times, but there aren’t a lot of people getting passed by on bus stops. He said his department has received few complaints.
“I think people are understanding,” he said. “They understand the demand for services. We have people standing and we’re white-lining on most days.”
While the driver shortage is impacting the number of buses deployed on a given day, the transportation department is still meeting or exceeding the number of deployments as last year. However, the town is deploying about half as many buses as during the pre-COVID benchmark in 2019.
For example, in June 2019, there were 1,541 bus deployments. This June, there were 779 bus deployments, compared to 766 in June 2021. In June 2020, at the height of the pandemic with mass transit essentially on hold, there were just 230 deployments.
A look at the ridership numbers tells a similar story. This June, the transit system carried 317,916 riders. In June 2021, 247,089 rode the bus. In the height of COVID in 2020, just 97,150 riders took the bus. In the benchmark June 2019, 575,582 rode the bus.