CAPITAL REGION -- With more people returning to work or travel their routines, the Capital District Transportation Authority is preparing to increase bus service on major trunk routes that had been scaled back during the pandemic, and resume collection of fares.
Daily ridership, which plunged in the second half of March as COVID-19 spread across the nation, is rebounding in recent weeks, said CDTA CEO Carm Basile. The Capital Region entered Phase 4 of the state economic re-opening process on Wednesday, meaning more people returning to work, some of whom regularly ride the bus.
This month, CDTA will be responding by increasing bus schedules, and on the busiest routes even assigning more buses than in the past. "It's 15 to 18 people per bus," Basile said. "The magic in that number is that it allows for social distancing."
Starting Sunday, July 12, the regional mass transit agency will be returning to pre-pandemic service levels on 15 trunk routes -- its busiest routes -- including along the Central Avenue corridor and the Route 50 corridor in Schenectady and Saratoga counties. It may even add buses on major routes so each bus can carry fewer people, following social distancing guidelines.
The majority of CDTA customers use the trunk routes, he said, and they will be returning to pre-COVID service levels.
"I think it's returning to normal. ... Is normal back to where we were before COVID-19? The answer is, not quite," Basile said on Wednesday.
CDTA is also going to be installing new plexiglass safety barriers on buses that will allow it to resume charging fares at its fare boxes, which have been waived since early April out of concern for drivers' and riders' health.
"As the region responds, so is CDTA," Basile said. "We have developed a reopening plan that covers employee safety, service deployment, maintenance, cleaning protocols, employee and customer safety, and communication."
The Capital Region entered Phase 4 of re-opening on Wednesday, which is allowing museums and low-impact entertainment to resume, though there is still no word on when major venues like malls will be allowed to re-open. The Crossgates mall stop, in normal conditions, is CDTA's busiest.
At the beginning of April, average weekday ridership dropped abruptly from 55,000 per day to under 25,000. Boardings started to rise since then. The changes being made this month are designed to accommodate at least 40,000 daily boardings, as more people return to work and more activities resume.
"We're back in the 32,000 to 34,000 range, and we see a consistent growth line, every week, and that's five to seven percent growth," Basile said.
In late July or early August, CDTA anticipates returning to front-door boarding and resuming fare collection on all buses. The agency is going to be installing protective barriers on all buses in front of the operator's seat. Once the installation of barriers is finished, the fare collection process can resume, but Basile said there isn't yet a date set.
The authority has been helped through the drying up of fare revenue by $42.7 million in federal grant money, including in the CARES Act, the coronavirus relief legislation adopted in April. That money was intended to help cover the customer revenue losses transit agencies across the country are experiencing, as well as the higher costs for cleaning and other measures. It is also helping CDTA manage the temporary delay in a state operating aid payment of more than $10 million, which was expected in May but hasn't been received.
"It's doing exactly what it was meant to do," Basile said of the federal funding. "It's meant to get you through a difficult three- to six-month period."
CDTA has not collected fares since April 6, when it instituted a policy of having all passengers board from the rear entrance. Basile estimated the loss of fare revenue alone in the last three months has been about $5 million.
All buses, as well as CDTA's permanent facilities -- including the Rensselaer and Saratoga Springs train stations -- are undergoing daily disinfecting and a cleaning with a hydrogen peroxide-based mix that kills bacteria and viruses on contact.
"It's almost a continuous improvement process," Basile said. "Disinfection was not part of our lexicon, and now it's something we hear about all the time."