NC: CMS students on public transit? Here’s how it could help with school bus driver shortage

April 2, 2024
In collaboration with the Charlotte Area Transit System, which runs buses and a light rail network, the district is looking to get students and staff at a few campuses free or subsidized access to public transit.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is exploring a new transit program to help students and teachers get to school.

In collaboration with the Charlotte Area Transit System, which runs buses and a light rail network, the district is looking to get students and staff at a few campuses free or subsidized access to public transit. The initiative comes amid an enduring bus driver shortage in CMS and across the country.

“We are exploring possible partnerships including a pilot of offering additional access for cost-free or affordable transportation options for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students,” CMS Executive Director of Transportation Adam Johnson told The Charlotte Observer.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman, chair of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, came to CATS with the idea of a collaboration around six months ago because of the district’s driver shortage. Since then, CMS and CATS have been meeting monthly to discuss plans for a pilot program.

“CMS was having a real shortage of bus drivers, and we’re always looking for ways to increase ridership,” said Altman. “I’m really appreciative of CMS and CATS for keeping up this sustained dialogue, which I don’t think has happened before.”

A nationwide school bus driver shortage has persisted since the pandemic. CMS currently has 24 bus driver vacancies after beginning the 2023-24 school year with 28 vacancies. That does not include drivers out on medical leave. The district began using an “express” bus route plan for magnet schools in 2023. Without express stops, which require students to be dropped off at particular locations, the district would have been short by over 200 drivers at the start of the school year.

CMS offered a $1,500 sign-on bonus to bus drivers at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year in an effort to mitigate the shortage.

Public transit wouldn’t replace school buses

The CATS-CMS collaboration would be a supplement to school buses, Altman says, not a replacement.

“We would not be taking away school buses,” Altman said. “This would give older students another way to get around the community in addition to single car ridership and the school bus.”

Altman said the pilot program will initially include a small number of schools, but it could expand to more campuses in the future. While officials are continuing to meet monthly to work on the initiative, there is not a clear start date at this stage.

“I can’t really sketch out a timeline at this point because we want to get it right, but we’re definitely moving with alacrity,” Altman said.

Organizers are considering factors like cost, timing, location and efficiency in discussions about how, when and at which schools to implement the pilot program.

Still, Altman said it’s possible the program could roll out before the end of this school year.

“I don’t know that we’d necessarily wait until the beginning of next school year,” Altman said. “If we have a collaboration with a few pilot schools that works well, then we may debut it as soon as we have all the details hammered out.”

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