February 9, 2009

Storms create university transit staffing issues

Recent winter storms across many parts of the U.S. have created operational challenges for university transit systems. One the key difficulties is finding enough drivers to cover routes, especially during severe weather such as a snowstorm.

Part of the problem is that many colleges and universities hire students to drive campus buses. Some schools, such as the University of Connecticut, do not classify student workers as “essential/emergency support employees” and thus cannot require them to work during weather emergencies.

“Yet the university still expects full bus service, or some semblance thereof, during all weather conditions,” said Janet Freniere, transportation services administrator at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Even when classes are canceled due to inclement weather, the university provides bus service, she said.

Freniere said 90 percent of her bus drivers are students, causing concerns about covering routes during bad weather. “Luckily, a lot of them stay or come in anyway,” she said. But Freniere is considering hiring more non-student drivers, figuring that will lead to “a lot fewer headaches.”

At Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, the campus bus service covers most of its day routes from Monday through Friday with full-time, non-student drivers. Part-time student drivers help to cover evenings and weekend service.

Kent McDaniel, executive director of IU’s Transportation Services, said he cannot require his drivers to work at any time. “But we can expect them to show up for the work assignments they have committed to work and can discipline them for failing to show up,” he said.

“We are sympathetic when the weather is a big factor,” McDaniel added. During a recent snowstorm, Indiana University took the rare measure of shutting down, but maintained as much bus service as it could.

“We had pretty good cooperation from our drivers,” McDaniel said. “Our drivers are considered emergency/essential employees, but all that really means is that they get special IDs so they won’t be arrested for driving to work during weather emergencies.”

At the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in Durham, student bus drivers are up to the challenge of driving in inclement weather. “However, if the situation requires, we might replace an inexperienced driver with one who has more miles under his or her belt,” said Marc Laliberte, transportation operations manager for University Transportation Services.

Making things a bit less complicated, when UNH cancels or curtails classes, it does the same with its bus service. “Our bus service will start earlier and end later than the posted curtailment/cancellation, but ultimately it will shut down as well,” Laliberte said.

 

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