FARGO — Facing a severe shortage, MATBUS will be offering a pay increase in an attempt to keep and attract more drivers.

Officials for the public transportation system that serves Fargo, West Fargo, Moorhead and Dilworth said the city's low unemployment and competition from businesses that are paying more for people with commercial driver's licenses are causing the shortage.

Matt Peterson, assistant MATBUS director, told the Fargo City Commission on Monday night, July 15, the organization is short 22 drivers to reach the 90 full-time drivers and 20 part-time drivers needed at full staff.

Peterson said it's becoming more critical with the new college school year not far away.

"There's a real chance we won't have enough drivers," he said.

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Peterson added that drivers are handling an "$800,000 piece of equipment with up to about 90 passengers" and said that's quite a responsibility.

The commissioners approved the pay increases starting Aug. 1 from $15.10 an hour to $18 an hour; the Moorhead City Council will be asked Monday, July 22, to also give its blessing.

The pay increase will also translate to higher pay for current drivers. Transit Director Julie Bommelman said Tuesday that raises for other employees will be up to $3, but based on their years of service and current pay. She said there are currently six bus drivers who have more than 25 years of service and will earn the top rate of $22.09.

Peterson estimated the increases will amount to about $206,100 for the reminder of the year.

Commissioner Tony Gehrig was the lone vote against the pay increase because he said he doesn't believe in adding to the city's budget mid-year or anytime when it hasn't been budgeted beforehand.

He also brought up the issue when police and firefighters were given large pay increases to match other salaries in the metro and across the region.

Gehrig said there's probably been an extra $1 million added to the budget this year due to issues that weren't budgeted. He asked what the pay increase would cost down the road a year or in five years and how it would affect the budget.

"I'm miffed how the city commission can allow this," he said.

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Commissioner Tony Grindberg agreed that they needed to get a better handle on budgeting without the mid-year surprises.

However, Julie Sellner, regional director of operations for transportation giant First Transit, told the commission that the attrition rate was very high for drivers here. She estimated it at 40% to possibly as high as 57%.

"It's just been incredibly hard to find drivers," she said.

Since May, she said only four additional drivers have been hired.

She said other businesses seeking drivers with commercial driver's licenses are paying from $15 to $22 an hour so "we are the low guys."

Meanwhile, MATBUS officials also said plans continue for the new Ground Transportation Center remodeling project in downtown Fargo..

KLJ Engineering project manager Cassie McNames said the one major change is that the GTC can't use the parking lot to the south to expand its footprint. However, the canopy on the back of the GTC will be removed and buses will no longer have to back up when they pull into the center when the project complete. Officials felt this was a major safety issue as passengers could be walking behind the buses.

The work will also include some repairs for the underground parking garage structure, which despite some early concerns is "overall in fairly good condition." There was one steel reinforcement cable in the garage and a concrete beam that were causing concern but McNames said they can be fixed. The concrete overlay on the bus parking deck above the garage also has some cracking but that will be redone in the project.

Two federal grants are paying for the GTC upgrade, which they hope will allow the facility to last another 20 years. City and tax increment financing district funding is being used for the city parking garage repairs underneath. Bids are expected to open this fall and winter for the two projects.