Bay of Plenty Regional Council is scrambling to stem the fallout from its widely criticised new Western Bay bus network.
There are fears a shambolic start to the new $14.8 million a year Baybus network will drive users back into their cars as they lose confidence in both the buses and the council.
The redesigned network was launched in December with new routes and a new operator, NZ Bus.
Complaints started immediately but shot up dramatically when schools started returning and NZ Bus, facing a 25 per cent driver shortage, began cancelling dozens of trips a day - 90 yesterday alone.
With the company estimating it will be another 10-12 weeks before it has a complete roster of 150 full-time equivalent drivers, the council is preparing urgent changes.
Short-term fixes may include the return of two much-missed old routes and reducing the frequency of some underused new ones.
The council also brought forward a full review of the design of the struggling network.
"A dog's breakfast," "a fiasco" and "a huge mess" were some phrases elected officials used to describe the network in a meeting of the council's public transport committee meeting yesterday.
Both committee chairman councillor Lyall Thurston and NZ Bus general manager of operations Claire Neville apologised for the issues and the frustration and anger felt in the community.
Neville fronted the meeting and listed challenges the company had faced.
She said the driver shortage was a national issue the company also experienced in its Auckland and Wellington operations.
The company paid Bay drivers $2 an hour more than the previous contractor but faced recruitment competition from other companies and transport industries, and had difficulty hiring over Christmas in a tight labour market.
Of the 150 full-time equivalent drivers needed, they had 110 and another 6-10 expected to start training - which takes up to 10 weeks depending on experience - soon. She estimated it would take 10-12 weeks to hire another 30 drivers.
The shortage issues were exacerbated by the return of schools and the increased scope - particularly in weekend work, which came with additional rostering complications - of the new service.
Riled-up councillors said the company either knew about or could have predicted those challenges when it tendered for and signed the contract.
Neville said the company tendered in 2017 when the shortage was less severe and started recruitment six months ahead of the launch.
NZ Bus was leaving "no stone unturned" in its effort to find drivers, including talking to other operators, recruiting internationally and lobbying the Government to have driving put on the skill shortage list.
Some councillors said the company was in breach of its contract and said council had to take a hard line.
Councillor Kevin Winters said he regretted not doing more due diligence before voting to award the company the contract.
"All I have heard this morning is excuses. You signed a contract, you have to deliver.
Councillors said they had been inundated with complaints from the community: schoolchildren left stranded, jobs threatened due to being late to work, old people left waiting in the sun for buses that never arrived, drivers kicking people off early and not knowing their routes.
"I used to love catching the bus," Debs Turner told the meeting. "Not now."
The Pāpāmoa resident, who has disabilities and does not drive, has to take six buses just to visit the market on the weekend.
She wants the old urban network back.
Meanwhile, some 250 people have signed an online petition to reinstate the old school bus network.
Councillors said urgent action was needed. "We need to own it, apologise and fix this," said councillor Paula Thompson.
Top 5 revelations
Some surprising revelations were made about the state of Tauranga's bus network and infrastructure at yesterday's Bay of Plenty Regional Council (BOPRC) public transport committee meeting.
1. Five electric buses, originally due last year, had not arrived because they were "shipped to the wrong country" - Namouta Poutasi, regional council general manager of strategy and science
2. The council had just four days notice that NZ Bus had too few drivers - Fiona McTavish, chief executive, BOPRC
3. A commercial operator is in talks with the council about offering a Te Puke-Tauranga school bus service - Garry Maloney, BOPRC transport policy manager
4. NZ Bus had its trainers driving school buses due to its driver shortage - Claire Neville, general manager of operations, NZ Bus
5. A bus interchange Tauranga City Council planned for Hairini must be moved because the road was refinished and buses can't manage the new grading - Clare Cassidy, transport planner, Tauranga City Council.
Interim fixes proposed
- Reestablish Route 36 from Pāpāmoa direct to the CBD
- Introduce and extension to Route 36 via Maungatapu
- Reestablish Route 70 in Matua in off-peak hours
- Urgently review the Brookfield service
- Develop new timetables for the network
- New timetables may include less frequent services on some routes.