Local bus system operating at 80 percent of normal
By Gabrielle Gasser Associate Editor
BIG SKY – The effects of a national shortage in commercially licensed drivers are being felt by the local public transportation system which currently lacks drivers and is running at reduced capacity.
The Skyline bus system, operated by the Big Sky Transportation District along with Karst Stage, had to adjust its services late in 2021 due to a lack of drivers which eliminated some key pickup times.
David Kack, coordinator for the district and director of Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute, has been working with the district since 2003 and said that in some ways, this has been Skyline’s toughest winter yet.
“I say there’s three key things for us to do what we need to do and that’s funding, vehicles and drivers, and if one of those is missing, then you have a hard time,” Kack said. “It seems we’re doing OK with funding and vehicles but drivers are the missing key right now.”
The general manager of the district, Sam Luedtke has been driving a lot more frequently to fill in the gaps and try to keep the system running on schedule.
He called the current situation a “double-edged sword” that creates a tenuous balance between efficiency and capacity. According to Luedtke, the recently condensed schedule means that a lot of buses are nearing their limit. While their routes are more efficient, he says, there have been some instances where riders were unable to board a full bus.
“We don’t have enough drivers just like everywhere else doesn’t have enough employees,” Luedtke said. “People need to bear in mind that we can do [just] what we can do with what we have.”
In the middle of November 2021, Skyline had to adjust its schedule ahead of the winter season schedule on Nov. 22. The transportation district held multiple meetings with its board, along with Dan Martin, owner and general manager of Karst Stage, and representatives from large employers in Big Sky, to discuss what could be accomplished with the resources available.
“Skyline continues to be a great resource for transportation around the greater Big Sky area,” said General Manager of Moonlight Basin Mike Wilcynski. “David and his team are doing their best under challenging circumstances related to labor shortfalls that have impacted the overall capacity and frequency of the Skyline routes. We have had to rely on our employee shuttle program to supplement the Skyline services due to the reduced schedule.”
The resorts have the greatest ridership numbers, according to Kack, so it made sense to preserve as much of that service as possible as well as the Link service that takes riders to Bozeman. The priority was to get people to work in the morning, Kack said. The result found late-night bus service much more limited than in years past with most routes ending between 6 and 8 p.m. and a three-hour gap in service from 4:35-7:35 p.m.
“We’re unfortunately not able to get people out to dinner and some later evening activities,” Kack said. “We just thought we’d put the resources where they’re probably going to be most used, but we would have really liked to have been able to do at least what we did last year.”
One longtime visitor to Big Sky, Heather Blease, has noticed the gap in evening Skyline services though she says they haven’t affected her trip. Blease has been able to get where she needs to go but the reduced schedule requires her to plan accordingly.
“I noticed there’s more focus on keeping things here in town and the connection between [Town Center and the mountain],” she said while waiting at the Town Center stop. “It just seems like that line is very thin.”
The other service gap this year is occurring in the Link schedule from Bozeman to Big Sky, which now offers 10 roundtrips as compared to 12 last year. The last bus departs from Bozeman to Big Sky at 12:40 p.m. and Kack said this can be an issue for tourists flying into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in the afternoon making it difficult for them to get up to Big Sky.
The solution would be to hire more drivers, but Martin with Karst Stage says that has proven difficult. Karst Stage is contracted to drivers for Skyline and Martin said they are actively recruiting and spending anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per month on those efforts.
According to Martin, Karst Stage is offering hiring bonuses and increasing pay by 15 percent. Since 2019, he added, pay has increased by about 40 percent. The current hourly rate for a Skyline driver is $23 but the bump in pay isn’t bringing in more employees.
On a national scale, many drivers laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic are not looking to re-enter the workforce, Martin said. As spending habits shifted further to online shopping, companies like e-commerce giant Amazon began hiring more employees with commercial driver’s licenses which, according to Martin, has made it difficult to find drivers for public transportation.
“We’re frustrated by this whole thing as well,” Martin said of the failed recruiting attempts. “I’ve driven more in the latter part of last year than I’ve driven in the 15 years that I’ve been at Karst.”
To help support hiring efforts, Martin said this year he doubled the amount of staff housing he owns because he worries the rental market will prevent potential employees from making the move to the area.
Kack said a minimum of three drivers need to be hired just to cover the standard seven-day-per-week driving schedule. He estimated that Skyline is currently operating about 80 percent of the service that it did last year.
In the first six months of this fiscal year, July 1 through Dec. 31, ridership on local Skyline routes increased by 19.1 percent, something Kack says is a promising sign that ridership is returning to normal.
Martin anticipates this driver shortage to be an issue for another year or two and then hopes Karst and Skyline will be able to build back some momentum.
“The district has done a great job, we’ve all done a great job,” Martin said, “of adapting throughout this including the riders by the way. I know it’s not easy.”