The Sunset Empire Transportation District is under pressure to hire bus drivers for a major expansion and a crush of cruise ship visits this fall.
“It’s not just unique to our agency,” Jeff Hazen, the transit district’s executive director, said. “It’s a nationwide issue of finding drivers for transit.”
The expansion, funded by a payroll tax that was part of a transportation package passed by the state Legislature in 2017, is scheduled to begin in October. The first project Sunset Empire will focus on is providing weekend bus service in Astoria.
In September and October, Astoria is expected to welcome 11 cruise ships, including three on Sept. 26 that could flood the city with more than 4,450 visitors.
Sunset Empire adds two routes on days when cruise ships are in town to accommodate passengers and crew. The transit district is concerned the lack of bus drivers and the demands cruise ships put on bus lines will delay the expansion.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed,” Hazen said. “But it just depends if we can hire a few more drivers.”
Hazen needs four drivers before October and 10 within the next year to tackle the expansion and the cruise ship lineup.
On cruise ship days, Sunset Empire adds Route 11 and Route 12.
Route 11 is designed to move passengers from the Port of Astoria to downtown. The bus makes stops at 10th Street and the Columbia River Maritime Museum before looping back to the Port.
The second route, Route 12, targets the cruise ship’s crew. That route goes from the Port to shopping centers in Warrenton, including Fred Meyer, Costco and Walmart, where the crew can purchase groceries, toiletries and other items.
By the time the cruise ship season ends in late October, 18 ships will have visited Astoria this year. The number is expected to nearly double in 2020, when 33 cruise ships are scheduled to visit.
“Right now, we have enough buses to transport when we activate the Route 11 and Route 12 on cruise ship days,” Hazen said. “But with the amount of cruise ships scheduled next year and the amount of passengers coming in, we won’t have enough.”
When passengers arrive at the Port, they are welcomed by the Clatsop Cruise Hosts, a group of volunteers in blue vests that help visitors navigate the city. Among other things, the volunteers set up a ticket kiosk at the Port, where passengers can purchase an all-day bus pass. Tickets are $6 for guests, $3 dollars for crew.
“It’s on and off all day. Once they pay their ticket they don’t have to pay again,” said Cyndi Mudge, the volunteer coordinator. “It’s really convenient.”
Other transportation options include walking, renting a car or using tour buses for planned outings. But Mudge said the majority of passengers use transit district buses.
The growing number of cruise ships will increase the burden on the two routes, and without enough bus drivers, passengers could have to wait longer .
“It’s just a continual line for the first hour or two,” Mudge said of the experience now. “Think of moving a thousand people. That’s a lot of bus runs.”
“Large ships, anything 2,000-plus, those are the ones that are a challenge,” she said. “Moving even half of those passengers landing in our town (is) a lot of work.”
One of the solutions Hazen has suggested is to acquire larger buses that can hold up to 100 people. Though steps have yet to be taken to acquire the buses, he is hopeful other agencies will donate used buses to Sunset Empire as there is typically a fee to have older buses removed.
“It’s one of the options. If it doesn’t work out we just deal with what we have now,” he said. “It may mean that when those ships come in people are going to have to stand in line longer.”
Regardless of the expansion, cruise ship pressures and the shortage of drivers, Hazen remains confident.
“We’ll make it happen,” he said. “We always do.”