Driver shortage leads to cuts in needed paratransit services

March 20, 2023, 4 p.m. ·

Jody Faltys prepares to exit the bus and head to her medical appointment
Jody Faltys prepares to exit the bus and head to her medical appointment. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

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For the last seven months, people who use public transportation in Lincoln aren’t able to get rides after 7 p.m.

The lack of evening rides affect all people who use public transit in Nebraska’s capital city. However, it especially interferes with the independence of people with disabilities.

Jody Faltys is a book editor and promoter. When Faltys was four years old, an accident left her quadriplegic.

Jody Faltys works on her edits and other work on a tablet in her office.
Jody Faltys edits books and does other work on her tablet in her home office. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

The longtime Lincolnite uses a wheelchair to get around. Faltys said the city isn’t perfect for accessibility, but it’s better than her hometown.

“I can go a lot more places. I have a good group of friends who also are cognizant of accessibility,” Faltys said.

She relies heavily on Paratransit - Lincoln’s public transportation for people with disabilities. People schedule customized rides one week in advance.

StarTran operates Paratransit, in addition to 18 fixed bus routes around town — 16 of which haven’t taken rides at night since August.

Faltys said she’s grateful to have Paratransit in town. She uses the service about two or three times per week.

Jody Faltys takes the lift onto the green bus.
Jody Faltys takes a lift onto the Paratransit bus. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

On a recent March day, Faltys took a Paratransit bus to a medical appointment and allowed Nebraska Public Media to come along.

It’s one day before the Arc of Nebraska’s Senatorial Dinner. She is thinking about what she could bring up with state legislators.

“It's the issues that we always are talking about right now. The home health issue,” Faltys said. “We just don't have workers so that's putting stress on our independence.”

The loss of rides at night is just one more obstacle to independence, she said. In fact, Faltys worries she won’t make it to the senatorial dinner. But, it wouldn’t be the first thing she missed since services were trimmed in August.

Faltys has been involved with the disability rights organization, Citizen Advocacy, for about 15 years, helping the organization with finances.

But in a harsh irony, evening cuts to Paratransit have forced her to miss monthly meetings.

“It kind of bums me out that I can't fully be a part of it,” Faltys said. “And, it's an organization that tries to help people with disabilities—help them get mentors and people that help them navigate the bigger world.”

Now she’s forced to participate remotely. But it’s more than just the work she’s removed from. It’s people.

Faltys couldn’t make it to a colleague’s retirement party—whom she’s known for almost 15 years.

“Like I said, you're a part of it and, yet, you’re not part of it. So, that’s what saddens me,” Faltys said.

Also, Citizen Advocacy recently moved to a new building that didn’t have internet for a while—making it tough to join meetings from home.

The driver shortage

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the transit industry hard. Liz Elliott is the Director of Transportation and Utilities for the city of Lincoln. Elliott said StarTran was forced to trim services because of a shortage of drivers.

“We saw about a 30% decrease of our operators which makes it extremely challenging to continue to provide reliable transportation to the community,” Elliott said.

She said she didn’t want to cause burnout and more job losses. Therefore, dropping rides after 7 p.m. each night was the safest way to move forward. Additionally, not many rides were given after that time, no matter the service, she said.

Since the start of 2022, Paratransit has given an average of 6,526 rides per month.

StarTran also offers on-demand ride services, as a way to more safely accommodate people during the pandemic. It’s a customized ride service much like a taxi or Uber. StarTran said on-demand is available to Paratransit riders too.

Trimming all ride services, not just those routes that use traditional buses, helped StarTran comply with federal rules, Elliott said.

“We had to look at the network as a whole and not treat one service differently than the other which would be prohibited by the Federal Transit Administration,” Elliott said.

StarTran’s fixed routes, on-demand rides, and Paratransit service don’t end exactly at 7 p.m.. Rather, the buses must return to the barn by that time. As a result, it varies how late any StarTran user can get a ride depending on how long a trip takes.

The average Paratransit ride takes 19 minutes, not including the time it takes for the bus to return to the garage, StarTran said.

Elliott said StarTran is bringing on new drivers. In Oct. 2022, Elliott’s department began a hiring campaign for new drivers which included pay increases for drivers and mechanics.

“We have been able to hire about two dozen operators, so we're not quite full staffed,” Elliott said. “But we now have single-digit vacancies which is promising.”

Elliott said StarTran’s services hope to return to full capacity by late May.

Jody Faltys smiles while riding the bus.
Jody Faltys rides Paratransit a couple times per week. Faltys is excited to ride at night again, and attend more meetings and social events. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

“I would be stuck”

In the meantime, Faltys has to be flexible. Sometimes that means paying a friend to use their wheelchair accessible van for rides.

But, that doesn’t always work out. As is the case with this year’s Arc of Nebraska Senatorial Dinner. She couldn’t find a way to attend.

Faltys is frustrated with the cuts in service, though it’s better than the alternative.

“Honestly, if Paratransit went away completely, I truly don't know what any of us would do,” Faltys said. “I would be stuck like I was back in my hometown.”

If Paratransit returns to full capacity soon, Faltys said it would show that Nebraskans care about people with disabilities.