The next hurdle for Centro to clear to make bus rapid transit a reality for Syracuse will be staffing, the authority’s leadership told the Syracuse Common Council on Tuesday.

The bus service will need about 200 bus operators to make the BRT plan run. Centro now employs about 145 bus operators and has open positions, said Brian Schultz, chief executive officer.

Centro has about three years to ramp up its hiring, Schultz said. The goal is to fully implement BRT by 2026, but Centro could phase in routes, officials told the council.

A shortage of drivers became an issue at Centro at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization cut some services during the pandemic because of a decrease in ridership. Schultz said he believes the organization also lost drivers to “alternative occupations,” with better, more flexible schedules.

Ridership is about 62% of pre-pandemic ridership, said Steve Koegel, Centro’s vice president of communications and business planning.

Centro, the region’s transportation authority, provides bus service to and around Central New York cities including Syracuse, Oswego, Auburn, Rome and Utica.

The organization has taken some steps recently to increase staffing. It has started recruiting on social media and with television and radio ads.

Recently, Centro held an open house that drew about 80 people interested in jobs.

Centro expects to add a group of 22 to 24 drivers as a result of the open house — almost three times the size of its last class of driving recruits, Schultz said.

Prospective applicants were invited to drive a bus at an empty lot across from Centro’s headquarters, to get acclimated to driving a bus. Attendees could then to apply for open positions at the open house.

Requirements for the opening include an acceptable driving record; high school diploma, GED or equivalent; five years of driving experience; a drug test and a background check. The positions also require a six-month probation period.

Centro’s starting salary for bus drivers is $24 per hour and wages may go up to $26.60 per hour.

Centro has many challenges to overcome to implement its BRT routes.

It will have to build new shelters at bus stops that show up-to-date expected arrival times, QR codes to pay fares online and more seating.

BRT will also require coordination with the city. For example, the city is upgrading its traffic signal system with federal stimulus money to allow fire department vehicles to change signals during emergencies.

The system can also be built to allow BRT buses to hold green lights for slightly longer and improve route times.

Centro recently approved an order of 82 buses, which arrive no sooner than September 2024.

If the transportation authority returns to pre-pandemic service levels, it will need another 16 buses.

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.