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Transit ridership is growing along with gas prices, but hiring can't keep pace

Metro Transit is hoping this weekend's event will attract more drivers as ridership continues to increase.

MINNEAPOLIS — Taking public transit to work in the last two years has made for an eerily quiet commute at times.

"For a long time, I was the only rider on a double bus and that was strange," said Sara Mumma, who has taken the express bus from Maple Grove to her job in downtown Minneapolis for more than 20 years.

In the last two months, Mumma says those lonely rides have become a thing of the past. She says her route has been steadily gaining riders as gas prices have climbed and more workers have returned to the office.

"There has been a lot more people taking the bus, more people at the bus stop, more cars at the transit station," Mumma said. "I've also noticed that people are walking to the transit station and taking their bikes more often, so I think other people are making changes to keep the cars into their garages."

That kind of anecdotal evidence is just starting to be reflected in Metro Transit data. The latest numbers show that May reached an average weekly ridership of nearly 120,000, which is nearly two times what that number was a year ago.

"It tells me people are coming back to work and they don't want to pay the big gas prices or sit in traffic to get to work," said Amina Wolf, interim deputy director of bus operations for Metro Transit. "I'm starting to ride the buses again myself to come back to work. Definitely the gas prices are outrageous. I think it cost $80 for me to fill up my tank. I don't want to sit in traffic and I really don't want to pay all that extra money, and I think a lot of people are feeling that way, too."

That would help explain why the biggest gains in ridership have come on major commuter routes, including the Orange Line from Burnsville and other Express buses into downtown. 

While numbers still aren't near where they were prior to the pandemic, Wolf says the gains are notable considering the fact that many of those routes have been reduced since the pandemic.

Kent Erdahl: "Do you believe there might even be more riding right now if you could provide some of the routes that were cut?" 

Wolf: "Absolutely. We're trying to get enough drivers to be able to accommodate that."

Erdahl: "This is a pretty critical time for bus drivers... or the lack of bus drivers." 

Amina: "That is the better way to put it, yes. We have a shortage of about 200 to close to 300 drivers that we need if we needed to reach the numbers we had prior to the pandemic."

Metro Transit has been holding monthly hiring fairs in hopes of chipping away at that big shortage, and this weekend it will make its biggest push yet. It is turning its annual "Bus Roadeo" into a family event and hiring fair.

Prior to the pandemic, the rodeo was an annual driving skills competition that served as a fun way for Metro Transit drivers to see how they stack up with their peers. Now, it is serving as a round-up for future drivers as well.

"This is also the first year, in well over 25 years, that we've made it a public event," Wolf said. "You can apply for a job and we'll even be conducting interviews. We'll also have lots of entertainment and fun for the family."

For more information on the Metro Transit "Bus Roadeo" and bus driver hiring process, click here.

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