Michigan bus driver shortage spurs new solutions

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By CAMERYN CASS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Driver shortages are hurting Michigan transportation companies and schools, forcing creative solutions.

During the pandemic, when people were in lockdown, transportation demand plummeted. Many drivers lost their jobs and got work elsewhere, said Chad Cushman, the president of Indian Trails Inc. 

His Owosso-based bus company lost 95% of its statewide business when the pandemic hit, Cushman said. Now, people are starting to travel more and demanding services, but there’s a shortage of drivers.

“It’s unfortunate because we have the equipment sitting. We just don’t have the drivers to drive the equipment,” Cushman said. 

The same is happening in schools.

“We already were seeing this shortage coming pre-pandemic,” said Jennifer Smith, the government relations director at the Michigan Association of School Boards. “But now, it’s crazy.” 

Schools are using COVID relief funds to distribute gas cards to parents who now drive their kids to school, said Tina Kerr, the executive director of Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. 

At some schools the large volume of cars is causing traffic jams, Smith said. 

That’s not good for public safety.

School buses are 70 times safer than automobiles, said Dave Meeuwsen, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation. Yet, some parents have no other choice but to drive their children when bus routes get cut. 

The Lansing School District not only offers parents gas cards, it provides unlimited city bus passes to students through the Capital Area Transportation Authority.

“There’s some real advantages to working with the CATA system,” said Robert Kolt, a publicist for Lansing School District.

Students can use these free passes anytime, and not just to go to school, Kolt said. COVID relief money helped pay for a lot of this, but so did school funds.

The money they would have otherwise spent on Dean Transportation, a Lansing school bus service forced to cut routes, was instead used on these passes. 

Though a partnership like this would be unlikely before COVID, both CATA and the Lansing School District agree it addresses the bus driver shortage.

“We were and continue to be thrilled to partner with the school district to help resolve its transportation concerns,” Lolo Robison, the director of marketing and customer experience at CATA, wrote in an email. 

Superintendents have even stepped up around the state by getting their commercial driver’s licenses to drive buses or vans of children to school, Kerr said. Driver shortages persist, but communities are coming together in creative ways to get people where they need to be.

But challenges remain. 

“We’re no different right now than the restaurant industry, the hotel industry, the retail industry,” Cushman said. “Everyone is struggling.”