OLATHE, Kan. — Johnson County, Kansas is feeling the pressure of a national bus driver shortage. Public Transportation Director Josh Powers said roughly 20% of positions at Johnson County Transit (JCT) are vacant.
“Right now we have about 15 open positions for operators and additional positions for maintenance technicians and utility technicians,” Powers said.
Powers said so far bus routes haven’t been altered because of a lack of drivers. However, administrative staff with commercial drivers licenses (CDL) have occasionally been asked to fill in behind the driver’s seat to help maintain service schedules.
“We are able to get out our service every day in most circumstances. If more than a couple people are sick or out on vacation then it starts to put a strain [on staffing].We have to get people from the office out into vehicles to operate that service,” Powers said.
In addition to the 15 bus drivers needed this year, Powers said JCT will also need to hire an additional 20 operators in 2023 to support the county’s plan to expand services.
Last November county leaders approved more than $15million in new transit pilot programs, including paratransit and micro transit services.
“That operator shortage is affecting micro transit as well. We contract our service out to First Transit on the transit side and to WHC on the micro transit side. All of these transportation companies are battling for the same pool of operators. So it’s really difficult right now,” Powers said.
In an effort to attract more applicants, the county approved a $2.47 pay increase for bus operators, bumping up the starting pay rate to $23.47 an hour.
Powers said in addition to recruiting more drivers, transit staff are also looking at ways to adapt to the way ridership patterns have changed following the pandemic.
“For 40 years the commuter express service that we run, getting folks from the suburbs to the urban core for work, that was the backbone of our system. That ridership has really declined and has not seemed to come back very strongly,” Powers said. “Local ridership within the county is doing pretty well. Micro transit, our on-demand service, seems to be very popular. Ridership is increasing every month.”
Powers said the microtransit program supports about 800 riders a day and approximately 10,000 rides a month.
First Transit is offering a $5,000 sign-on bonus for applicants with a CDL. The company will also offer a $3,000 sign-on bonus for applicants without a CDL and cover the cost of obtaining the proper licenses. Anyone interested in applying to fill a bus operator position can find more information on the company’s website.