If the light rail or commuter train you typically ride didn't arrive on time recently, you may have staffing shortages to blame.
The Utah Transit Authority tweeted Monday that five northbound and southbound trips on the Blue Line TRAX train were canceled because of staff shortages. It also posted early morning FrontRunner delays on Friday because of staffing issues. And on Thursday, the agency responded to a person on Twitter that staffing issues were partly to blame for delays that day.
Carl Arky, a spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority, explained that delays may be more noticeable now but the underlying employment issue isn't really new.
"This has been going on for weeks, maybe months now," he said after Monday’s delays. "It's really a reflection of the pandemic. UTA is experiencing what almost any other company in the country — and maybe throughout the world — is experiencing. ... Today, we had a high absentee rate. It was unforeseen; it was unusual, and that resulted in the cancellation of some routes and some trips."
UTA has made it clear that staffing has become an issue this year. Agency officials said staff shortages are partly behind a major service shift that begins this Sunday, where 22 routes across its entire system will be discontinued and some of its largest routes will be reconfigured to absorb the service changes.
Transit ridership is up significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic decimated ridership beginning midway through March 2020. For example, average weekday ridership in June was nearly double from June 2020, and up 40% from the same time last year. That said, it's still a long way from full recovery. June's average of a little over 100,000 average weekday riders was still nearly a 25% decrease from June 2019 figures.
Employment has been equally slow to recover. While TRAX and FrontRunner had noticeable delays the past few days because of the "unforeseen" shortages, Arky says staff shortages are the most pronounced when it comes to bus drivers. The agency is short about 60 bus drivers in the Salt Lake County service area, and down another half dozen in the Ogden area. There are also shortages in paratransit drivers.
Arky said that the agency has essentially spent "every single minute of every single day" the past few months going out and recruiting new talent, getting them trained and then behind the wheel of its vehicle fleet. About a dozen people are currently going through the agency's training program to help ease the shortages.
The problem is that, with a statewide unemployment employment rate consistently at 2%, the agency has struggled to find the talent to fill all of the job openings. It's even harder to find the talent when operating vehicles requires stricter training.
"We are coming up short in terms of operators for our system. That's something that we're trying to deal with on a day-in, day-out basis," he said. "With that low of (an unemployment rate), it's very difficult to go out and recruit — and not just recruit anyone, recruit job people who are going to reliable, safe operators, who are going to be people we can count on, not just someone we can throw into the seat for the sake of putting someone in there."
The hope moving forward is to close employment shortages as soon as possible, so future routes avoid future delays and cancellations. However, it's unclear how long that will take to happen.
The upcoming August change day may help, but Arky said more delays and cancellations may be on the horizon if the staff situation doesn't improve.
"For the foreseeable future, we would ask for the public to hang in there with us," he said. "We're doing the best we can under the current set of circumstances, under the pandemic, to try to get people to come and operate our buses and operate our trains. It could, for the foreseeable future, be a factor that requires our riders to check our app every day just to see what the status is for the route that they take (that day)."
Contributing: Chris Jacobs