Lincoln County Transit buses leaving stops like this one in front of Newport City Hall will not be traveling east along Highway 20 until further notice, other than for the joint route with Benton County to the Valley, as the transportation system’s driver shortage prompts a second service cut in less than a month. (Photo by Kenneth Lipp)

Lincoln County Transit suspended its East County Route as of Sunday, the second service cut by the local transportation provider in less than three weeks due to a shortage of commercial drivers.

On April 11, transit suspended all Sunday service — with the exception of the Coast to Valley Express, which is operated with Benton County transit — until further notice. That change only impacted the system’s loops around Newport and Lincoln City and the route between, as the east and south county routes already ran six days a week.

Transit field supervisor Molly Murphy told the News-Times Sunday service was restored after just two weekends.

Now bus riders going to or from the Siletz and Toledo areas — the East County Route loops through Newport from Walmart to the hospital, making a stop near the high school before heading for Toledo’s two grocery stores, Main Street and eastern edge, then out through Siletz to the tribal clinic and back several times a day — will be limited to the Blue Line Route, which runs later in the day.

Cynda Bruce, program director for Lincoln County Transportation Service District, told the News-Times following the previous service suspension that the system, in fact, planned to expand its offerings, if only it could find the staff. Retirements and a lack of licensed applicants, both nationwide trends, stymied those plans and instead resulted in a service cut.

Planned expansions include a grant-funded Waldport circular route and the addition of Sunday service to east and south county.

The transit director said ridership was slowly increasing, roughly estimating about 100,000 rides a year system wide after a dramatic decline during the COVID pandemic. According to a ridership analysis within the transportation district’s 2018 Transit Development Plan, the whole system saw about 317,000 rides from 2015 to 2016, 187,000 on the routes between cities.

The analysis found more than half of riders worked full or part time, 20 percent were retirees and 8 percent were students. Sixty-six percent of system riders lived in households without cars, compared to 7 percent of the general county population. Three-quarters of riders who responded to a survey for the analysis said they would opt not to take a trip if public transit was not available, while 15 percent would carpool, 12 percent would walk or bike and 2 percent would drive or hail a taxi.

The county’s online job portal lists two available transit positions — on-call and Newport loop drivers. Hires begin at $18 an hour, with 30-hour weeks, and receive benefits including insurance and 401k.

There is a nationwide shortage of commercially licensed drivers across sectors — schools, public transit and trucking, the latter being blamed, in part, for disruptions in supply. Some difficulty retaining and recruiting for public transit has been attributed to increased stress during the pandemic, with drivers responsible for enforcing COVID guidelines and contending with defiant passengers. Driver attrition was already a problem before COVID — the average age of a bus driver is 50, according to the Brookings Institute.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that the Blue Line route, which also goes to and from Toledo and Siletz beginning later in the day, will continue to run six days a week, and that Sunday service was restored on the Newport and Lincoln City loops and North County Route.

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