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

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

“We started building service in January 2024,” said Amy Snyder, MTD deputy director. “Our plan is to return to full pre-pandemic service in the summer, and full U of I service for fall 2024.”

During the first six months of 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, MTD reduced usual bus operating hours by more than 60%.

Operating hours decreased to 18,000 hours from approximately 46,000 hours over an average six-month period from January to June. It was the first in a yearslong series of service reductions in the district as it grappled with the impact of the pandemic, including increasing vacancies for daily drivers.

“Before the pandemic, a maximum of seventeen bus companies would have reported sick. Before then, people would say, ‘Cheer up, go to work.’ But that’s not the culture anymore,” Snyder said. “The fact that we have to operationally plan about thirty calls per day… that has become somewhat of our new normal. It is absolutely an ongoing loss for the industries, including ours.”

A monthly passenger graph of MTD’s fiscal years 2016-2024 from April. Their total passenger numbers last year were 8.4 million, a stark contrast to their pre-pandemic figures, which consistently topped 11 million. Source: MTD

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

However, in September 2023, the district recorded 1.016 million passengers in a single month – the first time it surpassed 1 million monthly passengers since the pandemic began. The border was crossed twice more: in October 2023 and in February of this year.

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

“It fluctuated from week to week… On April 19, 2021, we lost 24 of the 220 operators. In July we lost 29,” Snyder said. “That (number) would explode to 40 people in one day. What do you do with so many people gone?

In addition, bus fare was completely discontinued from March 17, 2020 to August 15, 2021. Despite the loss of revenue, the district maintained a consistent budget thanks to revenue from annual fare passes and its agreements with other school districts in the Champaign region. Urbana area.

In 2021, the University of Illinois’ payment to cover the $0 on-campus bus fare also dropped from over $2,000,000 to just under $850,000.

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

Last October, 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 supplemented and maintained through 2022 until further notice.

Starting that same year, the district tried to get buses back on the streets and minimize driver vacancies, Snyder said.

“We’ve done a lot to invest financially in the driver position itself,” Snyder said. “We have approached 2022 and 2023 with a very aggressive recruiting mentality and we have put many more resources into our training department.”

These investments include new benefits to attract and retain new drivers. Health insurance premiums are now fully covered by the district, and part-time driver insurance only lasts 90 days instead of a year before it goes into effect. Starting wages for new drivers have also increased by 10%, which can be further increased depending on the driver’s previous experience.

The district also invested in a brand new driving simulator for its trainees, a purchase made possible by federal COVID relief 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 sustain itself during the COVID-19 pandemic. Source: MTD

Snyder said the simulator helps new drivers “get oriented on a bus and pretend they’re driving a bus,” and is “great for safety and confidence.” The simulator can also simulate accidents and incidents that a driver might experience on the street one day.

Last year, MTD officials said the changes were starting to pay off. In the last four months of 2023, driver vacancies remained consistently below 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 operating hours. As the semester progressed, hours were continually added, including the full comeback of all three Yellow Hopper buses and restored weekend service for the 130 Silver evening and daytime Teal routes.

“Really, what has allowed us to regain our numbers and fill our vacancies is new drivers,” Snyder said. “We have a lot of drivers who have only been here a year.”

Snyder said in an email that starting May 12, the start of summer service, the district has added an additional 65 hours of service on weekdays, 40 hours on Saturdays and 6 hours on Sundays.

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

As for the fall, a permanent restoration of 102 hours of combined weekend and weekday service will revive route frequencies throughout the community to pre-pandemic levels. These extended 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.