A shortage of drivers that forced Yolobus to postpone plans to increase the frequency of a popular commuter route between Yolo County and downtown Sacramento earlier this month has now led to several routes being suspended altogether.
The Yolo County Transportation District’s executive board voted unanimously Monday to suspend three routes that connect Yolo County residents to downtown Sacramento: the 43 and 43R express routes between Davis and Sacramento; the 45 express route between Woodland and Sacramento; and the 230 express route between West Davis and Sacramento. The changes are effective Wednesday.
The board also voted to reduce the assistance it planned to provide to Unitrans, which is experiencing its own driver shortage even as demand among newly arrived students is soaring. Unitrans is a joint operation between the city of Davis and the university, using students as drivers.
Unitrans executive director Jeff Flynn said Monday that demand had quintupled since students arrived in town last week and ridership over the weekend was the highest in history.
But that demand comes as Unitrans struggles to fill drivers’ seats. During the pandemic, with fewer students on campus, the ability to recruit and train them as drivers was disrupted. Unitrans’ recruitment efforts continue, but the requirement that drivers be students and the limited number of hours students can work per week leads to extensive training timelines.
That’s where Yolobus was going to step in, temporarily operating three Unitrans routes — the A, L and Z lines — beginning Wednesday and continuing until Unitrans returns to full driver staffing.
Now faced with a driver shortage of its own, the transportation district decided Monday to reduce its assistance to Unitrans. Rather than operating the A, L and Z lines on a 30-minute frequency, Yolobus will instead operate the A line on a 30-minute frequency and the L line on a 60-minute frequency.
Unitrans will continue to operate the Z line but will have to cut back the frequency of two other lines (E and F) in order to do so.
“There’s no easy options here and Unitrans is experiencing a huge influx of ridership. Just in seven days, our ridership has quintupled… from 1,500 people a day to over 5,000 a day,” Flynn told the YCTD board.
“We do expect ridership to come back to … pre-pandemic levels,” he added.
All of this follows YCTD’s decision earlier this month to indefinitely postpone plans to increase the frequency of the popular 42A and 42B routes from every 60 minutes to every 30 minutes during peak commute times. In making that decision, the district warned further route changes or suspensions might be coming due to a shortage of drivers.
Those changes did indeed come on Monday evening, and board members acknowledged the hardship that will be created for Yolo County residents who rely on those now-suspended routes. A number of those riders weighed in during public comment on Monday, some of them saying they don’t have cars and will now struggle getting to work.
“I’m deeply saddened and I feel a lot of stress over this,” said Winters City Councilwoman Jesse Loren, one of five voting YCTD board members. “What we do affects people’s lives.”
Riders depend on those buses, she noted.
But options are limited.
“I don’t really see any other choice right now but to temporarily stop the express bus services,” said Davis Vice Mayor Lucas Frerichs, who represents the city of Davis on the YCTD board.
“And it’s absolutely due to this extreme driver shortage. We’re not alone in this… there’s been a national shortage of bus drivers and other transit agencies and school (districts) across the country have been affected by this.”
Indeed, YCTD executive director Autumn Bernstein noted that the governor of Massachusetts has even mobilized the National Guard to help drive school buses.
“So we are not alone in facing this problem,” she said. “We’re exploring additional pay increases, hiring and retention bonuses and other strategies to attract and retain our workforce. We’re turning over every rock.”
But it is clear, she said, “that we did not get to this place overnight.”
Data from Transdev, which YCTD contracts with to provide all staffing, shows high turnover among Yolobus drivers for several years, said Bernstein, who was recently hired as YCTD’s new executive director.
“In the past, we were always able to hire new drivers to replace those who left, but that is not happening now,” she said.
Now the district is in conversations with Transdev on possible solutions “and we hope to bring some recommendations to you as soon as possible,” Bernstein told the board Monday night.
But in the meantime, Yolobus cannot continue operations as planned.
The express routes chosen for temporary suspension were selected based on ridership as well as the availability of other public transportation options, but “it is inevitable that some riders will be negatively impacted by service reductions,” the staff report prepared for Monday’s meeting noted.
Davis resident and state worker Stephanie Manansala told the board she is one of those riders. A regular rider of the 43 express, Manansala said the trip to Sacramento has been easy and convenient on that line and other options would not work for her.
“If the 43 express service is suspended, I regrettably will no longer be riding Yolobus,” she said.
Several others expressed similar concerns.
In written comment, Julian Watt said, “once these services are suspended, there is no alternative public transport link (between Davis and Sacramento) other than the irregular and slow (Route) 42 service.
“My concern, he said, “is that once a service is suspended, it is unlikely to be restarted as there will not be a business case to do so. No metrics will be available for those that would like to use a bus if one was available.”
Bernstein responded that “this is not a backdoor attempt to get rid of any of theses services,” and that ridership has been high on the express routes in the past.
“We are not talking about eliminating these services; we’re talking about temporarily suspending them,” she said. “We are doing our best to try to spread the pain, but there is pain… people are going to be impacted.”
Bernstein added that the hope is the routes can be restored in a matter of weeks or months.
Key in that effort will be figuring out how to attract drivers, something other members of the public noted.
In written comment, Ken Sevall said, “management’s failure to attract and retain drivers needs to be addressed.”
YCTD board members — who include Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, Frerichs, Loren, Woodland City Councilman Tom Stallard and West Sacramento City Councilman Chris Ledesma — expressed some frustration toward Transdev on that issue.
“I want to make sure we remember the responsibility to produce the workers lies with the contractor,” said Stallard. “We need to be on them asking, ‘What are your strategies?’
“Sounds harsh, but you need to show us you’re worthy of continuing as a contractor,” he added.
Unitrans, with a ready labor pool of students to recruit from, may return to full staffing before Yolobus, and not a minute too soon, given the “tsunami coming in Davis” in the form of returning students, said Bernstein.
That, in turn, would enable Yolobus to restore more of its own service that will be diverted to Unitrans lines in the meantime.
But even a temporary change like that underway with the express lines “affects people’s lives in a serious way,” said Saylor.
“This is not a place we want to be,” he added. “It pretty much sucks, actually.
“We’ve had a lot of motions on this board and this is the one I have liked the least. It’s really not pleasant to have to do and it’s been heartbreaking to hear the impacts.”
For more information on available Yolobus lines, visit https://www.yolobus.com. For assistance in finding alternative routes, including to access paratransit, call 530-662-2630, extension 2813. Find Unitrans route information at https://unitrans.ucdavis.edu.