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Bus driver shortage halts Ashland express

A bus driver shortage has temporarily halted an express route to Ashland.

Route 1X, which starts at the Front Street Station in Medford, will be suspended starting next Monday until Jan. 3, 2022.

A separate microtransit service, which takes passengers the last mile from their house to the bus stop in Ashland, will be suspended during the same period of time, also because of a driver shortage.

Rogue Valley Transportation District passengers can still use the Route 10 bus from Medford to Ashland, though it’s a longer commute and makes five stops before it arrives at the Ashland Plaza and then makes several stops around town before returning to Medford.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Vaccinations are requited for RVTD drivers.

Route 1X takes passengers to Ashland in 20 minutes, stopping first at Ashland Community Hospital, the Ashland Plaza, Southern Oregon University and Shop’n Kart.

“We suspended the 1X route mostly because students were using it,” said Julie Brown, general manager of RVTD. “They’re going into their winter break.”

The 1X route started up again in October, making 14 trips a day. It had 813 rides in November.

The Ashland micro transit had 1,158 rides in November.

A bus driver shortage has hit many transportation systems in the country. Tri-Met in Portland has had to cut service by 9%.

“We’re struggling like everybody else,” said Julie Brown, RVTD.

She said the district lost one driver because of a vaccine mandate. However, a Medicaid call center, which takes patients to and from medical offices, lost four people who didn’t want to be vaccinated.

“We gave them the option to work from home, but they decided to quit their jobs,” Brown said.

There are 68 drivers at RVTD

Other drivers have left to take jobs with school districts, which are offering sign-on bonuses.

A number of drivers are out on family leave or for health-related issues.

The remaining drivers are, in some cases, putting in their maximum number of hours to keep the buses rolling.

Some drivers have decided to get into the long-haul trucking business.

“There are so many job opportunities out there,” Brown said. “There are so many people asking, ‘Is this what I want to do for the rest of of my life?’ I can understand people wanting a different opportunity.”

Brown said the drivers serve an important role at the transportation district, and she’s hoping to get more people interested in signing up for the job.

She said her district offers competitive wages as well as health insurance and other benefits after 60 days.

Driving a bus is relatively safe, and a security guard is posted at the Front Street Station, Brown said.

Many of the riders are regulars who watch out for each other and the driver.

Drivers receive training in deescalating a situation, and they also have a button they can push to get help.

“It’s one of the most important jobs at the district,” Brown said. “They’re providing the level of service that the public expects.”

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.