ALBANY -- A 40-foot-long transit bus may not look enormous, but a good, deep, thorough cleaning -- the kind the Capital District Transportation Authority is now performing on every bus now to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading -- takes one employee 3 1/2 hours to complete.
But that kind of cleaning is going on all the time, as transit organizations like CDTA seek to reassure the tens of thousands of people who ride the bus every day that they can do so without worrying about inadvertent exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19 through previous riders.
Last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that the Metropolitan Transit Authority must undertake new cleaning measures on New York City's buses and subways, putting a new emphasis on the health and safety concerns of those who travel by bus and train. He reiterated his call for "unprecedented" cleaning of the MTA subway cars every 24 hours on Saturday.
CDTA officials believe they're already on top of the need, even though the virus is less prevalent in the Capital Region than in New York City. Still, there have been more than 2,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the core Capital Region counties, and dozens of deaths.
For service technicians like Shaheem Plater of Albany, CDTA's response to the pandemic means that each evening he is assigned buses to clean, and he is heavily spraying foamy disinfectant on every surface that passengers touch -- seat fabric, armrests, steel strap-hanger poles and window glass -- and then wiping the surface down. The bus is cleaned both inside and out, from the driver's corner to all of the passenger seating areas.
The maintenance carts Plater uses are covered with at least a dozen cans of different cleaning agents, and even a putty knife or two for removing gum -- yes, kids, gum -- from under seats. The floor is swept.
ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
CDTA Maintenance service technician Shakeem Plater, of Albany, deep-cleans a bus at the Albany CDRA Maintenance Headquarters during the COVID-19 pandemic in Albany on Friday, May 1, 2020.
All that cleaning has been a massive undertaking for the bus system that serves Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties, and which is now hunkering down to survive the public health crisis and economic downturn. Less than two months ago, the talk was of expanding service into Montgomery County and converting to electric buses; now, it's killing microbes.
"In a matter of days, the need for social distancing modified everyone’s behavior," CDTA CEO Carm Basile said. "In
those same days, the CDTA team repositioned what we do and how we do it."
While there has long been a vehicle cleaning staff of about 40 people, during the crisis mechanics and other maintenance workers not otherwise busy are being assigned to cleaning, and those already on the cleaning team are being offered overtime. "Our employees have really stepped up," said Steve Wacksman, CDTA's supervisor of maintenance.
Cleaning that used to happen in the wee hours of the morning is now taking place earlier in the evenings as well as overnights. The latest-running buses don't get back to the garage until 2 a.m., and the first runs of the morning head out shortly after 4 a.m., so there's real no point when the garage shuts down.
"Cleaning has been going on, but now every bus has its particular schedule," Plater explained Friday inside the cavernous maintenance garage at CDTA's Albany headquarters.
Similar but smaller-scale bus cleaning and disinfection operations take place at CDTA's satellite garages in Schenectady and Troy, and authority officials said the cleaning work at all three locations could be ramped up even further if events require it. About 20 maintenance workers are located at the Albany garage, and about ten each in Schenectady and Troy; among them, they maintain about 240 buses.
In addition to the nighttime cleanings, teams of employees are also stationed at the turnaround stops in Schenectady, Albany and Troy from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. each day, where they wipe down the interior surfaces on buses at the end of their busiest morning and evening runs.
Maintenance supervisors say responding to the pandemic has been the biggest challenge they have ever faced, but one they know needs to be met if customers are going to be comfortable riding the bus.
"Our job now is to make sure our employees and our customers feel safe and secure," Wacksman said.
Like mass transit agencies across the country, CDTA has seen its ridership plummet in the last six weeks, as people follow government directives to stay home. At the same time, the need for cleaning has risen, and it has had to buy masks for all employees; authority officials said late last week that the cost of the additional cleaning measures is still being calculated, but it is adding to the burden of an already financially stressed organization.
Since early April and for the foreseeable future, passengers have ridden for free. They are required to board buses through the rear doors, and not charging allows them to avoid the fare box, which is located in the front of the bus next to the driver. Passengers are strongly encouraged to wear masks.
Congress has recognized that mass transit agencies need financial help, and the CARES Act signed in late March provided $42.7 million in grant funding to CDTA -- but much of that money is expected to simply cover the authority's current operating losses.
Despite the drop in ridership, CDTA continues to carry around 25,000 per week. It has redesigned some routes to emphasize service to medical facilities, grocery stores and pharmacies -- and places passengers need to go to get essential services, or to perform essential jobs. "There are still people riding the bus, and primarily they are going to work," said CDTA spokeswoman Jaime Watson.
While Cuomo is now emphasing transit cleaning, CDTA officials said they acted on their own. Buses previously underwent a "deep cleaning" with disinfectant every 14 days, though the interiors were swept and mopped every night. "We've been doing this," Wacksman said. "We've simply had to step it up."
Wacksman, who has worked his way up from a service technician job over the last 26 years, said the current situation is the most challenging the 140 employees in CDTA's maintenance department have ever faced -- though similar ramped-up cleaning measures were taken in 2009, when there was concern about the spread of the swine flu.
How long the deep cleaning protocols will be needed is still unknown, but for right now it's the maintenance department's priority. "It's all hands on deck. We're borrowing people from different areas if we have to," Wacksman said.
Routine bus garage activities haven't stopped -- oil still needs to be changed, worn motor belts replaced, and buses still suffer mechanical breakdowns and need to be replaced mid-run. "We have disinfected buses ready to go on a moment's notice," said Rich Nasso, assistant maintenance supervisor.
Should events or a new directive from the governor require it, cleaning efforts could be stepped up ever further, maintenance supervisors said.
"One of the things I enjoy is being challenged," Wacksman said. "We will do whatever we have to to see that people feel safe."