For almost 20 years, Grover Beach resident Joseph Holmes has used South County Transit to run his weekly shopping errands around the Five Cities area—occasionally taking the bus to San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria, too, when the need arises.
"I've been riding the bus a long time," Holmes told New Times. "I rely on it every Tuesday and Wednesday for shopping."
When COVID-19 hit two years ago, the pandemic did little to change Holmes' and others' continued need for reliable public transportation. But it certainly changed SLO County's ability to provide it.
Plummeting ridership and an exodus of bus drivers after COVID-19 caused nationwide crises in public transit systems—and SLO County was no exception. Over the past two years, the SLO Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and SLO City Transit shut down bus routes, changed schedules, and dropped service. And they've yet to fully recover.
For regular riders like Holmes, the impacts are real.
"You gotta rely on something and then they cut the service—what can you do?" Holmes said. "There were late buses. There were changes with the bus routes, changes in the times. And that affected a lot of people."
After SLO RTA's ridership bottomed out at just 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2020-21, it's inched up to about 50 percent in 2022. Now, with gas prices soaring, transit officials say that demand for the bus is booming again.
But the local systems are not well positioned to accommodate any surge. Neither the SLO RTA—which operates South County Transit and Paso Express in addition to its regional commuter routes—nor SLO Transit are running at full capacity right now, due to a bus driver shortage.
"We are still down a whole bunch of drivers," said SLO RTA Executive Director Geoff Straw. "We've got a great crew that really cares, but it's not sustainable. We're just skating by."
According to Straw, the RTA had 14 unfilled driver positions as of early March—an "uncomfortably large amount." Over the course of the pandemic, the agency lost a number of drivers to retirements and career changes, and rehiring has been a challenge nationwide, he said.
"Some of our drivers who had RTA as a final career, they packed it up [after COVID-19] and said, 'That's it,'" Straw said.
The driver shortage is wreaking havoc on the RTA's and SLO Transit's schedules. Several of their routes are still on pause, even as ridership recovers.
The popular RTA express buses that brought commuters from Paso Robles, Santa Maria, and the North Coast into SLO in the morning (and back in the evening) are suspended. Route 14, which ran students between SLO and Cuesta College, is also shelved; so are the tripper buses that went to local schools.
"We haven't run those since March 2020," Straw said.
Straw noted that buses are still going to those locations; the service is just less robust and efficient.
"People are still getting to work," he said. "It's just taking them a bit longer."
Several of SLO Transit's routes are also on pause due to the driver shortage, including its SLO and Laguna trippers.
"SLO Transit's contractor, First Transit, is experiencing labor shortages," a city website alert read. "The labor shortage situation is causing missed service and delays to SLO Transit's bus service. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience."
As both RTA and SLO Transit scramble to fill driver's seats, another issue that officials point to is ridership, which is still worryingly low compared to 2019 levels.
It's become a "chicken or the egg" problem, Straw said.
"Is [ridership] down 60 percent because we're not operating the expresses? Or do we put the service out there, and hope it fills up?" Straw said. "At this point, we have to get more drivers, and then we'll find out."
Some locals see the current bus crisis in a broader context: that SLO County public transit was underfunded and underperforming long before COVID-19.
SLO RTA's once-per-hour regular schedule doesn't adequately serve the community, said Kevin Buchanan, an Arroyo Grande resident and city planning commissioner. Buchanan said he sometimes takes the RTA to SLO to get to appointments. But its infrequent operating schedule makes depending on it difficult.
"The schedule is certainly limiting," he said. "Luckily, my job is such that I can be flexible. For others, it's just a nonstarter. It adds a lot of stress and sometimes two hours to the trip."
At its core, the problem is a lack of funding and community commitment to public transit, he said, which is obvious by just looking at some of the bus stops in town.
"Looking around Arroyo Grande, and to a lesser extent SLO, there's so many bus stop with no coverage from the sun, there's maybe a bench there, dilapidated sidewalks, and there's a lot of stigma against people who take transit," Buchanan said. "It doesn't look pleasant and it's been pretty clear that it's not something that is prioritized in our community."
Before the pandemic, RTA's Straw said the agency identified more express buses and more 30-minute bus cycles as short-term needs. Those targets feel more and more out of reach.
"We're just scrambling to keep things running," he said. Δ
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.