SCHENECTADY — According to Keith Strait, he and his fellow Capital District Transportation Authority bus drivers are the embodiment of front-line workers.
“Everybody was talking about the nurses, and I get it,” Strait said of the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. “But I’m out here every day with these people. Nurses are getting on my bus, going to their jobs.”
Strait, who will retire in May, reflected on the 37 years he has spent with CDTA, the Albany-based mobility organization with an office in Schenectady and 735 employees, and a $101 million budget.
CDTA drives more than 10 million miles a year, the equivalent of a trip from Schenectady to Los Angeles and back 1,800 times.
Strait said going to work during the earliest portion of the pandemic was a bit “nerve-racking,” but now he takes it with “a grain of salt.”
The veteran driver said he feels safe behind the Plexiglas barriers the organization installed — to the tune of an $850,000 investment — on all buses to separate drivers from riders. Also, face masks are available to riders.
Strait’s boss, Transportation Superintendent Rich Cordero, marveled at the steely resolve of drivers like Strait who showed up every day for work throughout the pandemic.
“We talked about not knowing what to do,” Cordero said, “and I remember we took our high-risk employees and were like, ‘Hey, stay home. We don’t know what this is. We’re learning and we need to keep you away from it for right now.’
“But when that happened, people like Keith took on more responsibility,” Cordero coninued. “And it was so funny, because they’re not even fazed by it.”
Cordero went on to call drivers like Strait “bulletproof.”
That was apparent as Strait spoke of some of the more dangerous things he’s seen over the years, including a woman who he said used a razor blade to slash another woman who had called her baby a name, and a woman who boarded the bus with a deceased baby. Strait said he also grew accustomed to waking up intoxicated riders on 2 a.m. routes.
But there were also many high points, Strait said, including all of the nice people he met over the years. He said he’s always willing to help older ladies with their bags.
And when he had a consistent route for 15 years, Strait often received Christmas gifts from some riders.
But now routes are changed weekly and the faces aren’t as familiar.
An avid obstacle course bus driver who won the state championship in 2011 — his best finish in the national competition was 13th in the 2012 event in Anaheim, California — Strait said his advice to anyone wanting to get into the industry would be to “keep your mouth shut and just say hi” to riders.
“I say good morning to everybody and keep it simple,” he said.
Strait said he doesn’t get into it with people who are short on bus fare. “You can tell by looking at them,” he said. “I’m not here to argue with anybody. Just keep it flowing.”
CDTA Chief Executive Officer Carm Basile — who, with 40 years at CDTA, is one of the few workers with more seniority than Strait — said employees like Strait have kept CDTA “in really good shape as we come out of the pandemic.”
“In general people rise to the occasion, at least in our case over and over and over again,” said Basile, who has served 12 years as the organization’s CEO.
“You can’t be a virtual worker if you’re driving a bus or fixing the bus,” he said. “It’s our employees who have just reaffirmed to me that people will get it done.”
CDTA received a $42.7 million federal pandemic relief grant, the largest grant the organization has ever received, which will be used primarily to cover operating expenses amid deep revenue losses caused by the crisis.
The money was included in the CARES Act, the COVID-19 relief bill that passed Congress and included money for aiding mass transit systems across the nation, which have continued to operate as “essential” services even as daily ridership declined by more than 60% in 2020.
At the pandemic’s two-year mark, CDTA has been carefully rebuilding its network of services, Basile said.
The organization plans to introduce a car-share program in the spring that Basile said will be in line with its bicycle and scooter share programs. He declined to say more about the initiative.
The CEO said there’s a better appreciation of the need for mobility in the region.
This year, CDTA built relationships with the Schenectady and Troy city school districts to provide bus transportation for students, something it had already been doing in Albany.
“The last three years have taught us — as employers, school districts, colleges and others — that people need to move in order to get to where they need to be: timely, efficiently, effectively. And it’s not always by car, even though we’re a car-dominated nation and car-dominated region.”
Importantly, the school partnerships “relieve some of the burden of yellow school buses and driver shortages, and everything you read about,” the CEO said.
Basile said public transit organizations such as CDTA do not make money. They need to be subsidized both by federal and state governments. But the organization has become more efficient and customer revenue has increased in the past two years, faster than CDTA officials expected.
“Just like everybody, when the pandemic first hit, your business hit rock bottom,” Basile said.
The organization is beginning to see more people using its parking at the Rensselaer Rail Station as workers return to New York City, and it continues to do well with its bike-share program, which Basile said has grown phenomenally in two years.
“That showed us that during difficult times that people are more willing to use alternative mobility like a bike, which in urban areas are very purposeful trips,” he said.
“People think people use bikes just to sightsee,” he said. “Some do. But a lot of them jump on a bike to get to CVS and pick up a prescription.”
Beyond counting riders, Basile said the organization finds value in helping the communities it serves.
“We get calls daily to help nonprofits, to help school districts, to help employers for tomorrow’s special event, whatever it might be,” he said. “That’s real important to us. It’s important to us that the region be a better place.”
Basile said that if someone had told him three or four years ago that the organization would install air purifying systems on buses that rivaled what are in hospital operating rooms, he would have called them “nuts.”
“The demands of the community, of our employees, of the people who use our service regarding cleanliness 15 months ago was beyond just having someone get on with a spray can and a series of rags, wiping down buses,” he said.
That’s what CDTA was doing 18 months ago during the pandemic’s early days, but it proved too costly, Basile said.
“So we invested several million dollars in a system that is constantly cleaning the air inside the vehicle,” he said. “The air inside the vehicle today is much different than it was three years ago. So that keeps our customers and employees safe.”
Basile said it’s just one example of how the company has learned on the fly and adjusted during the pandemic.
“I don’t think I used the word ‘pivot’ three years ago,” Basile said. “I use it pretty liberally now, because it just seemed like we were constantly pivoting — to the right — to get it done.
CDTA by the numbers
- 735 employees
- $101 million budget
- 300 buses
- 50 routes
- 2,665 stops
- 303 shelters
- 10.2 million annual vehicle miles
- 2.2 million gallons of fuel
- 750 thousand annual vehicle hours
- 4 electric vehicles