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Valley Regional Transit On COVID-19: Free Rides, Social Distancing And Fogging The Buses

Roam Yocham

Riding the bus for free and not being able to sit near other passengers are just two of the many changes to Valley Regional Transit (VRT) in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a totally different world,” said VRT Community Relations Manager Mark Carnopis.

Public transportation is deemed an essential service in Governor Brad Little’s stay-at-home order. So, Carnopis said its incumbent on Idaho’s largest public transit operation to be nimble. Carnopis visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the changes and how the massive federal aid package, dubbed the CARES Act, will help keep the buses rolling.

“We've got all hands on deck. If you're not driving a bus or driving an access vehicle, you’ve got a rag and disinfectant in hand, and you're out there helping to keep the buses clean.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice.

Idaho stay-at-home order isn't ending anytime soon and the list of essential businesses and services is very select, and one of them near the top of the list is public transportation. That's why this morning we're going to spend some time with Mark Carnopis, Community Relations Manager with Valley Regional Transit, Idaho's largest public transportation provider. Mark joins us live this morning via Skype. Mark, good morning.

MARK CARNOPIS: Good morning to you.

PRENTICE: Paint me a word picture. What is the experience of riding a bus like this morning?

CARNOPIS: Well, I'll tell you it's very challenging times for public transportation and our systems it really is no different. It is a totalyl different world. Just let me give you an example. If you are used to catching the bus, you now have to catch it through the rear door because they're trying to mitigate the contact between the bus operators and the riders. Also another step we took to keep that social distancing is we're not charging fares. We haven't charged fares in well over a week now. And again we can do that and utilizing the back doors on a vehicle is so equipped, we can help do that.

Also our bus operators who are well trained in safety, health, whole bunch of issues, have also taken on roles of COVID-19 overseers in terms of providing the public with information on social distancing, the proper way to cough and sneeze. We've had to take a couple of riders to task for that, the way they were sneezing and not covering their faces and everything else.

It's just a whole hodgepodge of steps that we're taking. We hold buses to disinfect them between runs. It really is just totally different than I've been used to in my 17 years here.

PRENTICE: Can you put a face to the riders? Who's hopping on the bus right now?

CARNOPIS: Well right now the focus is on transit dependent people. People have for maybe financial reasons or they don't have a personal vehicle, so it becomes a challenge for them to get to these necessary services, these essential services, such as grocery stores and medical appointments. We're seeing a lot of people that are doing exactly that, that they're using this service to get from these services that they need, be at an Albertson's to shop for some groceries or to get to follow up medical appointments. We also have access paratransit service, and though we've seen a dip in that service, that's also a very vital lifeline to get people to doctor's appointments because with access, that's primarily what our riders use that for.

PRENTICE: Do you have any sense of ridership even anecdotally of where ridership is now compared to, well even a couple of months ago?

CARNOPIS: I do. We just ran the numbers last Friday and our weekday ridership, we average somewhere around on our fixed line services about 20,000 rides a week and we're down about 45% on weekday ridership on the Valley ride bus services. On Saturday it's a little bit less; it's about 30% drop. That kind of mirrors a lot of the other transit systems we checked up on in terms of ridership drops.

We are also seeing a drop in access paratransit riderships. Those are smaller vehicles and I think there's concern by many of the riders that with those close quarters that better just err and find another way to get from point A to point B then to use the access.

PRENTICE: Have you made changes to any of the routes?

CARNOPIS: We have. We are closely following. Because of that drop in ridership we dropped four of our routes in Boise, the 8X, the 11, which provides service at Garden City, and 16 and 17, which provide service to Eastern Boise and the VA Center. We also have decreased the frequency on many of our routes. Conversely, we've also added some frequency, like our Route 9 State Street, our most popular route, which basically goes right through the spine of Boise. We've increased the frequency from 15 minutes all day. Beforehand we had it every 15 minutes during the peak times, which is about 6:00 to 9:00 and 3:00 to 6:00, but now it's 15 minutes all day.

Those are some of the things we've done. We have also reduced service because of lack of demand on our inner county routes. We have four inner county routes, and on three of those we reduced the frequency and when the buses were running. And also too, we have suspended our route 55. It provides service between the different facilities at the College of Western Idaho and Canyn County.

PRENTICE: Okay. So if it doesn't cost anything to ride a bus right now, I'm assuming that this has to be a significant financial burden. Is there federal relief available for an entity such as VRT?

CARNOPIS: Yes there is. There's something called the CARES Act, which we are still reviewing right now. The federal government and it's huge package that's for businesses, for individuals in terms of helping during the COVID-19 crisis, the Care Act is providing funding for transit systems, provided a lump sum of funding for transit systems. I think a little over ... maybe availability of about $2 million here in the Boise area. We again, it's a relatively new Act, so we're trying to assess. We're keeping tracks for things, for any layoffs, anything related to the COVID-19 crisis that we are doing differently because of the crises and the fares would be included in that.

PRENTICE: Okay. I have just about a minute left. Can you give us a sense of the cleaning experience aboard these buses?

CARNOPIS: Boy, we kicked it into high gear. One thing we realize that if we're going to idle some staff, we need to utilize them in our efforts to keep the buses clean and sanitized. Every night they're sanitized. We had just gotten some liquids in that we can use for fogging, as we fog the buses at night. Between the runs, the particular runs, we have staff in the buses wiping down major touch points and doing spray. They have spray bottles and rags and cloths and they're wiping it down between runs, which is really prior to this whole crisis we basically did the cleanings of the bus every night. So we've got all hands on deck. So if you're not driving a bus or you're not driving an access vehicle, you’ve got a rag and disinfectant in hand and you're out there helping to keep the buses clean.

One more quick thing we're doing is that we're also closing off seats on the buses to help ensure the social distancing. If you get on a bus, you may see some tape or something closing off some rows so we can allow for that. That we think is going to be fairly successful because some people tend to group together on the buses.

PRENTICE: Indeed. Mark Carnopis is Community Relations Manager with Valley Regional Transit. Mark, stay healthy. Thank you so very much.

CARNOPIS: Same to you. Thank you for your interest.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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