City demands more drivers

Lack of bus drivers may be the biggest hindrance to expansion and improvements in public transit in Minot, bus system managers told people with disabilities and their advocates at a meeting at City Hall Thursday.

The city held its annual Americans with Disabilities Act public meeting to hear from people about services through Minot City Bus and Souris Basin Transportation.

Souris Basin Transportation provides handicapped-accessible service on demand in the city limits as well as running a seven-county transit service. The system operates weekdays in Minot until 9:30 p.m. and on weekends if drivers are available.

Minot’s city bus service runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with additional hours from 7 to 9 a.m. from September through May.

People who rely on the service have long wished for expanded hours and days.

“Many people rely on these as their only form of transportation,” said Rhonda Thompson, staff member at Independence Inc. in Minot. “This is more than just a shopping trip. This is freedom.”

“We are looking at growth, but at the same time, we have to find the funds,” said Darrell Francis, executive director for Souris Basin Transportation.

“We are exhausting every avenue we can to bring revenue into the system,” city bus superintendent Brian Horinka added. “The bigger challenge is the employees. The city transit system has not had a full staff of bus drivers in almost four years.”

The city is short three drivers and has been filling in with qualified employees from other city departments. Souris Basin is short two drivers and has relied on help from its drivers in its outlying service area.

“I am not going to put on a whole new route out there and then the bus and then find out it’s not going to work,” Francis said. “If I don’t have the drivers, that route is not going to run. … I want to make sure we can sustain it. I want to make sure it lasts. I don’t want to start something for a month and drop it.”

Both the city and Souris Basin have struggled to get job applicants. Drivers at Souris Basin must pass a physical and drug and alcohol tests. They must go through training on passenger assistance and defensive driving. City bus drivers also must have a commercial driver’s license. The city will hire someone without a CDL and provide training, but the training can take up to four months, Horinka said. Due to the heavy demand at the motor vehicles division, it can take up to four months to get a testing appointment for a CDL, he added.

Pay starts at $11.50 an hour at Souris Basin. The city is advertising for part-time bus drivers at a starting wage of $11.86 to $13.11 a hour.

The shortage of drivers also has limited the bus system’s ability to expand routes into new areas of the city without creating long bus rides. Consultants working on a transit study will consider how to most efficiently add and expand routes.

“We haven’t made a lot of major changes at this point. But a lot of that was put on hold because we knew we were going to be doing this transit study,” Horinka said. “We want to see what their suggestions are before we put a lot of money and time into making changes that maybe aren’t going to work in the big picture.”

Major changes from the transit study aren’t likely to take effect until 2015 because of the time frame associated with city budgeting.

People who missed Thursday’s meeting still can make their voices heard through the transit study by completing an online survey at (www.minotbusstudy.com). The city already has received more than 500 responses through online and printed surveys.