Everyone is talking about growth, but once again the focus is on new jobs that pay $200,000 instead of the lower-paying ones people already have that make the creation of those new jobs possible. I’m talking about our public transit bus drivers.

As it turns out, GoRaleigh, which has boasted not having to cut service during the pandemic, has been able to squeak through by having its drivers work significant overtime and having supervisors—whose job it is to solve problems and ensure that buses are running efficiently—fill the voids. And while drivers have seen their pay increase (by 5 percent overall—to a starting pay of $16.25 an hour), the maintenance and cleaning staff who are equally, and sometimes more, exposed to COVID-19 haven’t seen any of that bump.

Just a few short months ago we were calling these workers—many of whom lost loved ones to the virus and kept showing up—heroes. Now everyone is suddenly surprised they aren’t lining up for positions that start at 20 percent of the forthcoming Apple salaries—in fact, they’re leaving them. But without these essential workers, the lack of reliable, efficient, and affordable transit will drive up the cost of living and make everyone’s commute—whether to work or the grocery store—longer.

Without transit connecting our communities, both the people who have to make the trade-off between paying rent and living close enough to a decent-paying job and those who can easily afford to do so will compete to live closer to job centers and current transit. That increases rent and purchase costs and pushes out longtime residents, many of whom are older adults on fixed incomes. Plus, more motorists—because of a lack of public transit—means more congestion and and more harmful emissions.

We need to address our bus driver shortage because it directly affects our ability to grow as a region. This begins by paying them more. In most of Wake County $34,000 is not enough to live on to pay for childcare, food, and other essentials. In the long run, municipalities that want to connect are going to need to raise taxes a little to pay for it, but we can start right now by prioritizing some of our sales tax funding for them. This might affect some of our Wake Transit Plan projects, but there will be no bus rapid transit crisscrossing Raleigh if we don’t have anyone to drive the buses.

We can find some savings through consolidation, too. People don’t care which municipality is footing the bill or what is written on the side of the bus if it helps them get to work and relieves the road congestion.

We need to be thinking regionally if we are competing that way—our essential workers are a major lifeline of our economy and that long-term idea of an affordable and thriving area. 

Nathan Spencer is executive director of WakeUP Wake County, a 15-year-old nonprofit that advocates for sustainable and equitable growth in the Triangle. He also serves as vice chair of the Raleigh Transit Authority.