Queenstown Lakes Mayor, Jim Boult, has welcomed Otago Regional Council’s (ORC) decision to increase wages for local bus drivers but says he remains “gravely concerned” about continuing reductions in the level of service affecting the Whakatipu community.
“Meeting the median wage hopefully means ORC will be able to retain existing drivers and recruit new ones,” said Mayor Boult.
“I also note it finally enables ORC to recruit offshore and boost the number of migrant drivers we so badly need after the effects of the pandemic,” he said.
“These moves are a step in the right direction in the face of long-standing service issues and the cost-of-living crisis which has been brewing for some time. But there is certainly more that can be done to deliver a better service for the community. We’re promised a return to full timetable services after summer and I very much hope that ORC will be able to deliver on that commitment.”
Last week ORC committed to working on solutions to address acute driver shortages, which have caused major disruptions to services across Queenstown and Dunedin in recent months, announcing an increase to all contract driver pay rates to the median wage, of $27.76 per hour from 1 October.
“This will start to attract the qualified NZ bus drivers who currently reside in Otago back into driving buses since this rate of pay will allow operators to compete more effectively with trucking companies, taxis, and uber drivers,” said ORC Interim Chief Executive, Dr Pim Borren.
“Secondly, this is also the minimum hourly rate of pay required by Immigration NZ to allow bus operators to recruit offshore. NZ has been reliant on migrant bus drivers for many years although this labour force has dried up as a result of Covid-19,” he said.
Mayor Boult said he was disappointed it had taken ORC so long to agree to the pay rise.
“Especially given our calls for action over many months together with Dunedin City Council (DCC) and our joint offer to review how public transport is managed between all three councils,” he said.
“ORC still hasn’t taken up this offer and there’s a huge amount more than could have happened before now.
“Friday is my last day as Mayor, but I will be watching with interest how ORC works collaboratively with staff and incoming elected members at both QLDC and DCC. The people of Queenstown Lakes and Dunedin deserve significantly better at a crucial time when we are trying to reduce car use and encourage shared public transport,” said Mayor Boult.
Meanwhile, Dr Borren said he will take “direct responsibility and accountability” for improving service levels, highlighting the current status quo “is not an option”.
He will take several options to the incoming ORC Council, including consideration for potential joint governance arrangements with Dunedin City Council and Queenstown Lakes District Council, if those councils were agreed.
The focus will be to consider what is affecting services and timetables and how driver shortages, pay rates, driver recruitment and retention and localised issues, such as accommodation, can be addressed to help meet the public transport needs of our communities, he said.
“We want to synchronise some of our efforts to tackle these ongoing issues, because it’s affecting so many communities across Dunedin and Queenstown on a daily basis.”
He says reduced timetables in both centres originally planned for the short term have now remained in place “indefinitely”.
“However, on the basis of our actions and working with our two bus operators, we anticipate a return to full timetable services after the December and January summer period,” Dr Borren said.
Both Dunedin and Queenstown services moved to reduced timetables in July.
“We acknowledge and apologise for the severe impact on passengers in Queenstown especially, and the need to return to delivering a reliable and consistent service as soon as possible.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm for public transport operators across the country, prompting the nation-wide driver shortage,” Dr Borren said.