MTD works to fully restore bus service to pre-pandemic levels; District invests more in drivers

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A photo of the new bus driving simulator paid for by a federal aid package MTD received to support itself throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Source: MTD

After service struggles during the pandemic, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) is restoring routes and investing in bus drivers as ridership rebounds to pre-pandemic levels.

“In January of 2024, we started building service back,” MTD Deputy Managing Director Amy Snyder said. “Our plan is to go back to full pre-pandemic service in the summer, and full U of I service for the fall 2024 semester.”

For the first six months of 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, MTD reduced its usual operational bus hours by more than 60%.

Operational hours fell to 18,000 hours from roughly 46,000 hours over a typical six-month period from January to June. It was the first of a years-long series of service reductions at the district as it grappled with the impact of the pandemic, which included increasing everyday driver vacancies.

“Pre-pandemic, we would have at most 17 bus operators call off sick … Before then, people would be like, ‘buck up, go to work.’ But that’s not the culture anymore,” Snyder said. “That, operationally, to plan around 30 call-offs a day … that’s kind of become our new normal. It’s definitely a constant loss in industries, including our own.”

A monthly ridership chart from MTD’s fiscal years of 2016-2024 from this April. Their total ridership last year was 8.4 million, a stark contrast with their pre-pandemic numbers, which consistently charted past 11 million. Source: MTD

Only around 3.5 million passengers rode the buses throughout the MTD fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1. That number was a steep decline from the district’s pre-pandemic ridership numbers in fiscal year 2019, which hit more than 11 million riders.

But by September 2023, however, the district recorded 1.016 million riders in a single month — the first time it broke past 1 million monthly riders since the pandemic began. It passed this mark two more times: in October 2023 and February this year.

MTD’s budget provides for a bus driver fleet of 220, the district’s ideal number to adequately operate daily within their service region, Snyder said. The district regularly struggled to meet service demands as daily driver vacancies persisted throughout the pandemic.

“It fluctuated week to week … On April 19, 2021, we were down 24 operators out of 220. In July, we were down 29,” Snyder said. “That (number) would explode to 40 people off on a single day. What do you do with that many people gone?” 

Additionally, bus fare was halted entirely from March 17, 2020 until Aug. 15, 2021. Despite the loss of revenue, the district maintained a consistent budget due to its income from annual fare passes and its deals with other school districts in the Champaign-Urbana area.

In 2021, payment from the University of Illinois that covered the $0 bus fare within campus grounds also fell from more than $2,000,000 to just below $850,000.

In the last half of 2021, the district attempted to reestablish its usual route frequencies, but the quality of service was entirely dependent on the number of drivers available each day. 

In October last year, MTD issued a formal apology to the Champaign-Urbana community for its unpredictable service and introduced a new list of service reductions — a list that would be added upon and maintained into 2022 until further notice.

Beginning that same year, the district endeavored to get buses back on the streets and keep driver vacancies to a minimum, Snyder said. 

“We did a ton to invest financially in the driver position itself,” Snyder said. “We approached 2022 and 2023 with a really aggressive hiring mindset and we put a lot more resources into our training department.”

These investments included new benefits to attract and retain new drivers. The health insurance premium is now completely covered by the district and insurance for part-time drivers takes only 90 days instead of a year to take effect. Starting wages for new drivers also jumped 10%, which can be increased further depending on the driver’s prior experience.

The district also invested in a brand new driving simulator for its trainees, a purchase made possible by federal COVID aid packages, totaling more than $45 million across 3 different packages, which MTD received between 2020 and 2021.

A photo of the new bus driving simulator paid for by a federal aid package MTD received to support itself throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Source: MTD

Snyder said the simulator helps new drivers get “oriented to a bus and pretend-drive a bus,” and is “great for safety and confidence.” The simulator can also recreate accidents and incidents a driver may experience on the street one day.

Last year, MTD officials said the changes started to pay off. In the last four months of 2023, driver vacancies consistently remained under 10, and the district began working on a restoration plan for the upcoming new year.

Snyder said this year’s spring semester initially started with 87.5% of the district’s pre-pandemic operational hours. As the semester continued, hours were continuously added back, including the full comeback of all three Yellow Hopper buses and restored weekend services for the 130 Silver evening and daytime Teal routes.

“Really, what’s enabled us to build back our numbers and fill our vacancies are new drivers,” Snyder said. “We have a lot of drivers that have been here only a year.”

Snyder said in an email that the district added 65 additional hours of weekday service, 40 hours of Saturday service and 18 hours of Sunday service as of May 12, the start of its summer service.

“These hours affect routes across daytimes including the 1/100 Yellow, 2/20 Red, 12/120 Teal, 14 Navy, 16 Pink, 50 Green and Green Hopper, 70 Grey, and 180 Lime,” Snyder said.

As for the fall, a final restoration of 102 hours of combined weekend and weekday service will revitalize route frequencies to pre-pandemic levels across the whole community. These increased hours will restore the frequencies of the 10 Gold Hopper, one trip of the 12 Teal, two trips of the 13 Silver, and the 22/220 Illini.

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