GRTC and our riders have faced significant on-time performance issues since the start of COVID. As operators are quarantined over possible COVID contact, we are left with too few operators to serve all routes on most days. As we have operators in quarantine, buses become even more crowded as the same number of riders are forced onto a fewer number of buses that arrive extremely late as they try to serve the community. All of our extra-board operators are assigned, all of our volunteer over-time operators are assigned, and some days, all of our supervisory and training staff who have CDLs are assigned - nearly every day - to cover service. Today, the day after the vigil for John Thrower, was a particularly tough day as many assigned operators called out. We have placed as many of our resources as we can on our high-capacity local routes and have significantly cut service to nearly all express routes since the start of COVID. About half of the express service that is still running is being operated on vans with paratransit operators so that we can be sure to reserve our normal buses and CDL-Operators for these crowded local routes. We are actively recruiting and hiring, but you may not be surprised that even though our pay and benefits are excellent, operating a bus is not for everyone. And it takes months to recruit and to train new operators.
Crowding on buses is a challenge GRTC has also been addressing since the beginning of COVID. And as the region reopens, it is getting much worse – especially on our core routes with our highest frequencies which serve our most economically disadvantaged communities. We are in the horrible dilemma of either refusing to allow people to ride the bus or allowing people to ride and face over-crowding. We know that most people riding our buses do so because they have no other options. They are essential workers, many living in poverty. Refusing them access to public transit would mean refusing them access to essential jobs, food, and health care. It would mean refusing them the ability to make a living and keep a roof over their heads.
I have been very actively watching the conditions of transit across the country and the world, and GRTC has implemented best practices to keep staff and riders as safe as possible under the conditions we face and still provide service to the best our ability, also considering the conditions we face. Buses are cleaned and sanitized nightly. Zero fares allow rear door boarding and a reduction of contact points associated with the fare box as well as separation from the Operator. All buses have hand sanitizer, also near the rear door, so that riders may sanitize their hand when the board and when they exit the bus. All buses have driver shields. All operators are instructed that if people do not have a face covering, the bus is to be pulled over until that person puts on the face covering or exits the bus. We ask that people make only essential trips, and we do not allow anyone to continuously ride without exiting for a destination. We ask that riders travel in silence to also limit any possible viral load in the air. We know that buses have a higher level of air circulation with frequent doors opening and closing to the outdoors, and we are asking that windows be kept cracked or open on the buses to further assist with air flow. With all these precautions, studies are showing that the risk to operators and riders, even when unable to socially distance, is low. And COVID contact tracing is not finding spread on our buses.
But we are all scared as COVID continues to spread to through our community. And when we have no option but to be shoulder to shoulder with another person during this time when we need to practice social distancing, our fear can only increase.
The needs of our transit riders are great. COVID has not changed those needs, but it has pointed a heavy spotlight on the inequities faced by our riders who have no choice but to use local transit.
GRTC continues to look for solutions to prioritize the health of our staff and riders, to secure the jobs of our staff and riders, and to protect the essential mobility needs of our community. I take this responsibility very seriously, and I am deeply troubled that we cannot do more to keep everyone safe and still meet these needs.
Concerned Transit CEO,
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