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'It's a challenging time': Centro dealing with bus driver shortage
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TRANSPORTATION

'It's a challenging time': Centro dealing with bus driver shortage

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A Centro bus picks up riders on Olympia Avenue in Auburn.

Mass transit agencies, including Centro in central New York, aren't immune from the labor shortage affecting many industries. 

Steven Koegel, Centro's vice president of communications and business planning, told The Citizen Wednesday that the agency has fewer bus drivers than it had two years ago before the pandemic. Centro provided data showing that, compared to 2019, Syracuse is down 56 bus operators, Auburn has six fewer drivers and Utica is down two. The numbers include full-time and part-time drivers. 

Centro provides bus service in Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Oswego counties. 

"It's something that has been a challenge for us on a day-to-day basis," Koegel said. "Right now, we're OK. But trying to pull off something like the state fair right now is a huge challenge." 

Koegel referred to Centro's announcement about its Park-N-Ride service during the New York State Fair. When the fair was last held in 2019, the agency offered several Park-N-Ride locations — including three in Cayuga County — where fairgoers could park at a lot and pay a small fee to ride a shuttle to the state fairgrounds. 

However, because of the driver shortage, Centro's Park-N-Ride service will be available at only three locations this year: Its transportation hub in downtown Syracuse, Destiny USA and Long Branch Park in the town of Geddes. 

"We assessed our bus operator situation and we determined what we can provide and provide it in a reliable fashion," Koegel explained. "We determined that these are the sites that we could operate reliably and provide good service from these locations. They are closer to the state fair and that means we can get more bus trips out of a bus and move more people. That was really the critical element when we tried to assess what ones we were going to be able to operate." 

There won't be Park-N-Ride locations in Cayuga and Oswego counties, and in parts of Onondaga County farther away from the state fair. Koegel said the longer trips are "just very difficult for us to provide good service for if we don't have the right amount of drivers." 

It's not just drivers that Centro needs. The transit authority is hiring mechanics and servicer/cleaners. Centro's home page includes a large "Now Hiring" banner that visitors can click on to learn more about the job openings. 

The outreach effort extends beyond its website. Koegel said they are using traditional and social media to spread the word. Last week, Centro posted on Facebook about the need for more bus drivers. The average salary for a driver, according to the post, is over $50,000. 

Centro also placed a television ad buy to run commercials during the Olympics. 

Koegel highlighted the pay and benefits for the open positions. He confirmed that the average salary for bus operators is more than $50,000 a year. Mechanics earn an average of $55,000, while servicer/cleaners are paid $35,000 to $45,000 annually. There is a full benefits package available for employees and, for bus operators, paid training. Drivers are required to have a commercial driver's license. 

"We think we have a very attractive job opening for somebody who is out there," he said. 

Centro isn't the only bus service in New York dealing with a labor shortage. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the New York City area has canceled trips due to the bus operator shortage. 

The problem isn't limited to mass transit agencies. Schools are having difficulty finding enough bus drivers. 

"We're hopeful that this is just a temporary situation and that, over time, it will get back to being less of a concern for us," Koegel said. "But right now, certainly we need to do everything we can to get people in the door." 

Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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