DENVER | Wayne Graham had his sights set on Vail for a day of skiing last weekend.
He decided to get there by hopping aboard the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Bustang service for the two-hour ride from Lakewood to the mountain. Equipped with WiFi and electric outlets, the bus offered the Denver retiree a relaxing, hassle-free way to traverse the 90 miles to the fresh powder awaiting him in the high country.
But as the 7:25 a.m. bus pulled up at the Federal Center stop, the driver announced it was full. Graham and five other would-be passengers were left standing in the parking lot as the purple coach pulled away.
“I was hoping to be skiing on the slopes at Vail now, but instead I am at home in Denver composing this email,” Graham wrote to staff at Bustang, an intercity bus service that has expanded rapidly across Colorado since its debut in 2015. “Please add more bus capacity!”
Adding capacity is easier said than done, said Mike Timlin, operations manager for Bustang. Like hundreds of other transit outfits across the country, Bustang is struggling to find drivers for a relatively low-paying job in an ultra-low unemployment environment where legal marijuana adds yet another barrier to recruitment.
Per federal regulations, those holding commercial driver’s licenses must test drug-free and can be randomly screened.
“It’s easy getting them in the door — it’s not so easy getting them through training or drug screening,” he told The Denver Post. “I’m very concerned about that. If we can’t find the staff, the buses are going to sit.”
Timlin said Bustang’s run from Denver to Fort Collins is short a bus, as is the West Line along Interstate 70 from Denver to Grand Junction. There are simply not enough drivers for the 19 51-seat Bustang buses that ply the two heavily used corridors, he said.
It doesn’t help that hourly wages for Bustang drivers start at $16 an hour and only rise to $18 an hour after six years, with shifts often covering odd hours and leaving drivers spending the night in a city miles from home, Timlin said.
Nor does it help the staffing challenges that more and more passengers have taken to Bustang since it launched in the summer of 2015. Ridership that clocked in at nearly 9,000 passengers in January 2016 escalated to more than 21,000 passengers last month.
On the West Route alone — the one where Graham was left behind in the parking lot on Feb. 15 — monthly ridership eclipsed 7,000 for the first time in January. It started out at less than 1,200 in August 2015.
“They have the demand for it — so they need to figure out some way to accommodate the demand they have,” Graham said.
Jeff Hiott, assistant vice president of technical services and innovation at the American Public Transportation Association, said bus driver shortages are widespread across the United States as unemployment continues to hover at historically low levels.
“It’s certainly not unique in Denver and not unique in Colorado,” Hiott said.
Pete Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, said every company he talks to is short on drivers. His organization represents 800 bus companies in the United States.
“It’s pervasive,” he said. “There’s isn’t a bus company in the industry that isn’t looking for drivers and mechanics.”
The Regional Transportation District has long struggled to fill its budgeted headcount for drivers. Last month, the agency showed a deficit of 109 bus drivers on its vast metro area system.
Meanwhile, Bustang continues to expand its reach in Colorado. At the end of last year, a new route between Colorado Springs and the Denver Tech Center was launched, with a one-way trip costing $9, and CDOT plans to acquire five additional buses in June. Bustang also spent the last couple of years developing its Outrider brand, which now features routes serving more farflung parts of the state, like Durango, Lamar, Gunnison and Alamosa.
Timlin said CDOT will work with its Bustang contractor, Ace Express Coaches, to bolster its driver recruitment and retention efforts, though he declined to go into details on whether that would include a pay raise or some other incentive.
The state legislature has been trying to help, as well. Both chambers this month passed Senate Bill 18, which lowers the age of eligibility for those driving commercial vehicles in and out of Colorado from 21 to 18. Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law on Wednesday and it goes into effect Aug. 2.
Rep. Barbara McLachlan , D-Durango, said the bill was crafted in direct response to the driver shortage plaguing so many vehicle-dependent industries.
“We were told directly — ‘We need more drivers,'” she said.