For anyone planning on taking public transit to and from Mammoth Mountain this Holiday season, there may be significantly longer wait times.
At last week’s Planning and Economic Development meeting, Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA) Executive Director Phil Moores explained that Mammoth is experiencing a significant shortage in bus drivers.
This past spring, ESTA was unable to hire enough drivers to operate at full capacity.
Instead, they operated at 50% capacity.
This decreased capacity has carried over into the winter season, with the town trolley expected to be reduced from running every 20 minutes to one every 30 minutes.
According to Moores, this shouldn’t affect wait times too drastically- except during peak times, such as the end and beginning of the ski day.
Longer wait times will surely be exacerbated during holiday periods, with Mammoth expecting large crowds this upcoming Thanksgiving weekend.
Mammoth Mountain is looking to find ways to reduce traffic at the end of the ski day, possibly closing lifts at staggered times so that not everybody leaves the mountain at the same time.
Moores attributes the shortage in bus driver applicants to this year’s overall trend of a shrinking labor pool – which he attributes to the high cost of living in Mammoth mixed with the relatively low wages given for the work.
“As you know, it’s become a very competitive hiring market,” said Moores during the Planning and Economic Development meeting. “The seasonal workers can’t afford housing here. So we are trying to incentivize people who already live here to apply, and to provide more full time positions. We’re looking at branding, marketing and wage negotiations as a way to do this.”
The current hourly wage offered for bus drivers is $17.75.
“Driving a bus in the winter in Mammoth can be a daunting thing to do. It’s a hard job. And if people can find the same money in a job that’s less difficult, they’re going to do it,” said Moores.
If drivers have been with ESTA for close to a year, they currently get an incentive bonus of up to $2,000.
There’s also a $2 an hour increase for people who work after 10 p.m., since those shifts are particularly difficult to fill.
But despite these incentives, ESTA has been unable to adequately attract drivers.
In order to get capacity back to where it should be, ESTA had hoped to hire 6-8 new drivers for the winter season. So far, they’ve only recruited 3.
In a given year, ESTA will carry 900,000 to one million passenger trips just within the town of Mammoth.
“If you imagine that all of those people drove their cars instead of using public transit, it would really jam things up around here and nobody wants that,” said Moores.
Wanting to avoid traffic congestion as well as agonizing wait times, Mammoth is desperate to find solutions.
One solution may be found just up the road in Tahoe.
Facing similar issues, Tahoe saw great success this summer by implementing its TART Connect pilot program, a micro-transit shuttle system, within its North Shore.
This program involves a network of vans that transport riders anywhere within its 3 designated zones, with each van confined to a certain zone.
“The idea is that ridership involves short-duration trips within like a 10 minute period of time. It isn’t designed for longer riding times,” said Andy Chapman, President of Incline Village Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau (IVCBVB), the organization that funded the TART pilot programs.
Riders use an app on their phones to summon the vans, similar to an Uber or Lyft; the vans pick up other riders along the way if necessary.
The vans, equipped with bike racks and ski/snowboard racks, carry 7 passengers at a time. During the summer pilot program, people often rode the vans to get to mountain biking trails. During the winter pilot program, which begins December 9, riders will be using the vans to get to the ski mountain.
According to Chapman, his board dedicated roughly $200,000 towards the summer pilot program, which ran 7 days a week, 8 a.m. to midnight.
The IVCBVB funded another $110,000 for its fall pilot program, which ran every day from 7 p.m. to midnight.
Because the vans hold only 7-passengers, their drivers are excluded from federal requirements needed for drivers of larger buses. Therefore, the hiring pool is larger.
“The driver requirements are very similar to a taxi service,” said Chapman.
The Sheet caught up with Scott Marzonie, owner of Mammoth Taxi, to learn more about driver requirements for taxis and vans.
According to Marzonie, a vehicle with less than 9 passengers requires that the driver only have a Class C license, which is the standard driver’s license for civilians. Once the vehicle exceeds 9 passengers, it is considered a bus, which requires much more licensing.
ESTA currently requires at least a Class B commercial license for driving its buses. These licenses mandate much more stringent requirements, including passing specific road tests and written tests.
According to Marzonie, it’s easier to acquire drivers for smaller vans because they don’t need to jump through the hoops of getting certified with a commercial license.
When asked about implementing a program similar to that of TART Connect in Mammoth, Phil Moores didn’t think it was a good idea.
With an estimated average of 48 passengers an hour circulating through town, which increases dramatically during peak times, it would be inefficient to shuttle people by van, according to Moores.
Solutions for the bus driver dilemma are still being circulated. This upcoming Thanksgiving will be the first trial for how an undermanned public transit system will accommodate the many visitors to Mammoth this season.