Iowa City Transit experiences staff shortages, delays in bus service expansion

Iowa City is currently dealing with a staffing shortage in bus drivers, forcing supervisors to cover shifts, sometimes driving buses for nearly 40 hours a week.


Braden Ernst

An Iowa City community member loads their bike onto the front of a new electric transit bus on February 3, 2022. Iowa City is currently battling a bus driver shortage to start the new year. (Braden Ernst/The Daily Iowan)

Sam Knupp, News Reporter

A bus driver shortage in Iowa City is forcing supervisors to cover shifts and is delaying the implementation of a Sunday bus service.

Iowa City’s 27-bus fleet is currently four drivers short of being fully staffed, with even more needed for the Sunday ride program predicted to begin this summer.

Darian Nagle-Gamm, Iowa City transportation director, said the shortages, which have been going on for the past six months, have been mainly because of COVID-19.

“It’s not just because we have driver absences due to [drivers] being sick but the quarantine periods have really affected us,” Nagle-Gamm said.

She said another issue causing the staffing shortage has been a shrinking applicant pool.

“I don’t think we’re losing any more people than we normally would. It’s just getting more challenging to find people,” she said.

Nagle-Gamm added that supervisors have been especially affected by this.

“There have been weeks where we’ve had supervisors who are nearly driving the entirety of their 40-hour [weeks] because of staff absences, and that’s also with other drivers working extra hours,” she said.

Because the transportation supervisors have often been busy driving buses, they’ve been left with less time to do their typical work tasks, such as dispatching, assisting drivers, and planning the Sunday pilot program.

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Geoff Fruin, Iowa City city manager, said at a Jan. 8 City Council meeting, that the Sunday ride program was supposed to start this winter or spring, but was delayed because of staffing shortages.

“It’s going to be hard to expand service when we can’t really run our service right now,” he said in the meeting. “… the folks who are planning that expansion are busy driving buses, and so we’re a little bit behind on the planning side of things too.”

Fruin said that ridership is also down from pre-COVID-19 levels by 40 to 50 percent, which could jeopardize the ability to pay for the expansion of the city’s transportation service.

Another issue for finding more drivers, Nagle-Gamm said is the amount of time it takes to get a commercial drivers’ license.

“If we have somebody hired who doesn’t have a commercial driver’s license. It could take several months to train them,” she said, “It’s quicker if we have somebody who has some driving experience and does have a commercial driver’s license.”

A recent survey from CNBC by Momentive shows that half of all workers say their place of employment is understaffed, and 43 percent of those workers say they are considering quitting.

The problem isn’t just in Iowa City — Jennifer Hirsch, manager of administration for MetroLink, a bus company based out of Rock Island County, IL, said they’ve had some ups and downs over the course of the pandemic and have been short two to four drivers for the past 18 months.

MetroLink’s Rock Island County fleet consists of 62 buses. Hirsch said while staffing has been decent there have been days from time to time where MetroLink has had to look to other staff to drive, adding that “It’s not an everyday occurrence.”

“However, with that being said in the past six weeks, we’ve started to see that workforce start to come back,” she said. “We have new hires in the queue right now that we’re training and we’re getting closer to being fully staffed.”

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