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COTA's workforce shortage could lead to service changes this fall

Esther Honig

A driver shortage at the Central Ohio Transit Authority will likely lead to route changes this year. COTA officials are holding two community meetings to talk to customers about their plans.

COTA typically makes changes to its services three times a year- in January, May and September. Service changes happen for a variety of reasons. They could be caused by construction schedules or changes in traffic patterns and flows.

For the second year in a row, however, it’s dealing with a workforce shortage, said COTA spokesperson Jeff Pullin.

“There are a shortage of CDL licensed operators, we have a lot of people in this country leaving the workforce or retiring,” Pullin said. "This is a national problem. Everybody’s dealing with workforce challenges and COTA is no different.”

The shortage of CDL licensed drivers has plagued the transit company for some time. Services were affected due to the workforce shortage in September 2021, when the company was down about 60 drivers. Changes this year could likely lead to longer wait times on certain routes.

“For example, some of our more frequent lines that are usually every 10 minutes during peak hours, might be every 15 minutes," Pullin said. "And some of our half-hour transit lines might be every hour during those non-peak hours.”

COTA currently staffs 608 drivers. In its 2021 annual report, it employed 672 drivers. Pre-pandemic, it staffed 711 drivers. The proposed adjustments could ensure that COTA has enough operators to support its transit system.

Some are concerned about how and what COTA is doing to address its workforce shortage. Josh Lapp is chair of Transit Columbus, a public transportation advocacy group.

“We just really need to see what their plan is to get service back to normal," Lapp said.

This summer, COTA increased pay across the board. Drivers in training will now earn $17.50, a $2 increase. After training, they will earn $21.10 per hour, and up to $30 after five years of service.

The transit company also offers cash incentives to new hires. That's $2000 to those without CDL-B license and $2500 with a license. There is also an employee referral program that offers a $500 bonus.

COTA is also working with local organizations to increase recruitment efforts. That will be extended statewide.

Other public transportation services have struggled to find drivers in Central Ohio this year as well, like the Fayette County Public Transportation Program. In March, the transit service was down about a dozen drivers and was increasing pay to attract workers.

Transit Columbus is also working with COTA, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the City of Columbus on a broader transit plan called 'Link Us.' It will develop a rapid transit system to increase access to public transportation, paths for cyclists and “transform the way the region moves.”

“Especially as we continue to grow with Intel and other things happening, we need to see large-scale transit investments and ultimately additional funding will be needed for that. So that is something that I know is in discussions right now,” said Lapp.

COTA also launched a six-month pilot program this year to increase access to transit at a reduced charge. The Income Assistance Program launched March 1. The program offers a 50% discount on fares to eligible riders who participate in six eligible programs like SNAP food assistance, Medicaid, Publicly Funded Childcare, Prevention, Retention and Contingency emergency assistance, Ohio Works First cash assistance and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

“We wanted to make sure that people who are in need of income assistance, not only have access to our system at a discounted rate, but don’t have to go through this big process that they’ve already gone through, through their county agency,” Pullin said. So far, 200 people have enrolled in the Income Assistance Program.

A similar service was previously available to children, veterans and qualifying disabled customers, who were eligible for a 50% discount.

Those enrolled in the program must use COTA's smart cards or transit app on their smartphone to use the service. Fares are capped at $2.25 per day and $31 per month.

The pilot program is set to expire August 31. COTA launched the program at no extra charge to other riders and was expecting a loss in revenue. Pullin said there could be changes coming to that program, too.

“The reason why we have these public meetings is because it is a change in fare for this program," Pullin said. "So we’re gathering data from our customers, and through emails and feedback online.”

What the change in fare would be is currently unknown. COTA said it's goal is to make the income assistance program permanent. After it’s gathered enough feedback, COTA plans to present that data to its board in Late July for permanent approval.

Lapp said it is a timely program for commuters in need of transportation.

“We’re always excited to see folks have more access to the transit system," he said. "I think as gas prices increase, hopefully folks think more about transit as an opportunity and help offset cost for people.”

Gas prices through most of Columbus have eclipsed $5 a gallon.

COTA will meet with the public Thursday, June 9 at 6:00 p.m. and Tuesday, June 14 at noon. Both meetings will be virtual and people will be able to call in.

The changes proposed would go into effect September 5.

Tyler Thompson was a reporter and on-air host for 89.7 NPR News. Thompson, originally from northeast Ohio, has spent the last three years working as a Morning Edition host and reporter at NPR member station KDLG Public Radio and reporter at the Bristol Bay Times Newspaper in Dillingham, Alaska.