Steamboat Springs' winter bus service likely will be curtailed because of a shortage of qualified drivers.
Transportation Director George Krawzoff said despite recent hires, Steamboat Springs Transit still is 20 drivers short of filling all 40 of its positions.
"Our situation is improving," Krawzoff said Monday. "But we're a long way from being fat and sassy. : We will start the winter service with very limited service."
The extent of the cuts remains to be seen. Krawzoff said the city is weighing two options: maintaining frequency on the most heavily used routes while cutting lesser-used routes, or "spreading the pain out across many routes."
From an efficiency standpoint, Krawzoff said the former option is the most appealing. The most heavily used routes are those that service downtown, the mountain and "condoland," Krawzoff said. The routes used the least - and those most likely to be cut - include the Hilltop Connector route and the route servicing Colorado Mountain College.
"Until we can recruit 20 more drivers, we will have to cut back somewhere," Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord said. "You can't run a bus system with 20 less people than you have buses for."
Last winter, nine seasonal, foreign workers drove Steamboat Springs Transit buses. This year, there will be no foreign drivers, mostly because of an energy boom in Australia that has lured away potential recruits. The Western Slope's own energy boom has decreased the number of local recruits, as well, City Manager Alan Lanning said.
"People can make more money," he said.
The city has gone to great lengths to lure drivers, including adding $45,000 to Krawzoff's recruitment budget. That money can be used to give drivers holiday pay and paid time off, installing tip jars on the buses, purchasing Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. silver medallion passes for driver use and further subsidizing housing. The hourly wage for drivers is $15.02, which would increase to $15.60 an hour Jan. 1 if, as expected, the Steamboat Springs City Council passes a budget that raises city wages 4 percent across the board.
In addition to bus driver housing being provided through city lease agreements at 525 Dabney Lane and 690 Amethyst Court, DuBord said the city may make rooms available at the Iron Horse Inn, which the city has announced its intention to purchase and convert into employee rental housing.
Initial plans were to continue operating the Iron Horse as a hotel through the ski season, but DuBord said three to five rooms may be made available for bus drivers.
"We still have to honor the nightly rentals, but they're not full," she said.
Krawzoff said subsidized housing would be offered to drivers on a first-come, first-served basis.
Lanning said Steamboat's difficulty hiring bus drivers is not uncommon to communities across the country.
"I think the No. 1 issue in my mind is the CDL," Lanning said, referring to a commercial driver's license. "Not everyone out on the street has a CDL."
The cost of living in Steamboat also is a challenge, Lanning said.
Krawzoff said the shortage is particularly frustrating because of Steamboat Springs Transit's increasing popularity. He said bus ridership is up 35 percent this year.
"Transit ridership has just boomed," Krawzoff said. "It's frustrating to have a system that's succeeding and not be able to keep it up."
Lanning said the bus driver shortage is just one example of staffing difficulties throughout the city. He estimated the city turns over about 45 employees a year.
"At any given time, we have about 15 percent of our positions open a year," Lanning said. "It's not exorbitant. It's like a toothache. It never goes away."
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