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Driver Shortage Leaves Vulnerable Transit Riders Waiting

As COVID fears lift in Arizona and other states, people with disabilities are using ride services again, but there's a dire driver shortage. That has left many riders waiting in extreme heat.

(TNS) — When Rusty Bowen's ride didn't show a couple Sundays ago, he was stuck outside a locked Arizona church in his wheelchair in 100-plus degree weather.

It was the second time in a just a few weeks that a Total Transit driver did not arrive on time, or at all, for Bowen.

Complaints about drivers being late or no-shows have increased in recent weeks, said Jim DeGrood, deputy director of the Regional Transportation Authority. The RTA contracts with Total Transit, a private transportation company, for most of its Sun Shuttle Dial-a-Ride services.

The problem, which is happening nationwide and significantly impacts people living with disabilities here, is a blend of two things: more people are using ride services again as COVID-19 fears lift, and there's a dire driver shortage.

Within Tucson city limits, Sun Van provides transportation to people who meet Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, eligibility requirements. There's also the RTA's Sun Shuttle Dial-a-Ride, which provides door-to-door, paratransit service to persons with disabilities living outside city limits or to Tucson residents needing rides outside city boundaries.

DeGrood said there was a huge drop-off in demand for these ride services when the pandemic hit, and now it's hard to attract drivers. Many independent contractors took jobs with Amazon, Target or other similar gigs, which leaves the RTA "scrambling to address customer needs," he said.

Talks are underway about how to increase hiring, he said, and a job fair is scheduled for later this month to find drivers not only for the RTA, but for the city's services as well as Tucson Unified School District and the University of Arizona.

For families such as Rusty Bowen's, complimentary rides provide more opportunities for independence as well as caregiver respite.

'Vulnerable People'

Rusty Bowen's mother, Lois Bowen, said her son did not use rides services for about 14 months because of COVID-19.

When he said he would like to go to church again last month, Lois Bowen called to make sure everything was still in order with Sun Shuttle Dial-a-Ride. The religious services he likes start at 9 a.m., she said, and although drivers are not typically starting shifts until 9 a.m., they said they could get him there on time.

She was grateful for the accommodation but then no one showed at their home that morning.

The second time, a driver was supposed to be at the church for pickup at 12:45 p.m. on a sweltering day, but no one showed. Rusty called his mother and said he was waiting outside and had not received the planned text about exactly when the driver would arrive.

When Lois Bowen called to see why no one was there, she was told they would be there in 45 minutes and that passengers needed to allow for greater wait times now. It was way too long for Rusty Bowen to be outside in the heat. His mother left to get him herself.

"It's frustrating," she said. "These are vulnerable people."

Total Transit acknowledges this is a problem.

"This has unfortunately impacted our ability to provide transportation services to the members of our community," said Anna Lam, communications specialist with National Express, the parent company to Total Transit.

"It is our goal to continue to provide safe and effective transportation throughout the Tucson communities. We will continue to work tirelessly to ensure we can meet our passengers' needs and minimize as much disruption and inconvenience to them as possible."

Challenges Exacerbated By COVID-19

Most Tucson area transportation providers are experiencing staffing shortages and hiring difficulties, said Steve Spade, general manager of Sun Tran, which includes both Sun Van and Sun Tran services.

"These challenges were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we now face growing challenges as our community returns to normal, and transportation ridership increases," he said.

"We have scheduled back-to-back trainings until we can get our staffing numbers back up. While we accept applications year-round, we are also hosting hiring events one to two times per month."

As the struggle continues to find enough drivers, Spade and Lam said providers are trying to help each other out. Total Transit is working with Sun Van, which is part of the city's Sun Tran services, to offer alternative passenger transportation options, for example.

Lam said in order to bolster services here, they have brought drivers in from Phoenix to support Tucson requests.

"In addition, we are also working with our sister company, Durham School Services, in Casa Grande, and are arranging to have their drivers assist us," she said.

There's also now a service called Sun On Demand, which started in November 2020 and offers door-to-door rides.

"Anyone can reserve a shared ride via Sun On Demand when they want it, as opposed to following a specific time schedule," Spade said. "The vehicles we use for the service are the same type used by our Sun Van paratransit service. This means they are capable of transporting ADA-qualified passengers and the general public."

(c)2021 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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