Mar. 21--As public transportation in Missoula chugs along through the coronavirus pandemic, officials are making efforts to protect bus drivers, even as ridership on the city's bus service on Friday had dropped 46%.
The Missoula Urban Transportation District's Mountain Line bus service this week rolled out its fleet with no changes to routes. Shanti Johnson, spokesperson for Mountain Line, said that could change as the transportation district works out a contingency plan expected to be completed next week. Perhaps the biggest shift in services came on Friday, as general manager Corey Aldridge announced the district would close its downtown transfer center to the public beginning Saturday.
For now, Johnson said, public transportation services are too critical to halt altogether, especially during a global effort to throttle down the spread of the new coronavirus.
"Our hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, they employ a lot of people and they depend on our services," Johnson said on Friday. "People who are providing other essential services need to get to work. It's keeping (Missoula's) infrastructure going for our services like health care facilities."
Mountain Line's bus service is free, and is some residents' only option for getting around town. At the downtown transfer center, Michael Fuller was waiting for the No. 5 bus to get him back to his house in the Rattlesnake after picking up groceries. Fuller also takes the bus to get to work and to see his family living near the South Hills, he said.
"I use it to get groceries, and it gets me around town," Fuller said. "It's a really good thing."
Johnson said ridership steadily declined this week, and Friday was down 46% -- that's down to an average headcount of 3,200 riders this week from its 5,900 daily riders. Despite the drop in riders, the district's number of bus operators has held strong, Johnson said. Part of staging the contingency plan to be released next week includes working with the bus drivers' union, she added.
Bus drivers also have access to personal protective equipment, such as masks, which have been used in the past during heavy inversions, said director of operations Jennifer Sweten.
"Whatever operators feel they need to drive safely, we try to provide that for them," Sweten said.
At the Mountain Line offices in the Westside neighborhood, the transportation district is doubling down on cleaning efforts. Federal guidelines call for sanitizing the buses once a day, while Mountain Line is cleaning them at least twice a day, Johnson said. Inside the buses, markers have cleared a 6-foot space behind the bus driver to maintain social distancing recommendations. Riders are asked to use public transportation only if they need to. The downtown transfer center has been getting the works, as well.
"We're updating our (cleaning) practices if applicable, sometimes multiple times a day," Johnson said.
Mountain Line has a fleet of 30 buses and 13 transit vehicles, with about 70 total employees, 44 of them bus drivers. Sweten said none have quit their jobs as the transportation district continues its regular routes, although the transportation district has been generally short-staffed with bus drivers. Sweten said she sees opportunity to fill those positions, given the layoffs ripping through the service industry as local and state officials shutter bars and dine-in restaurants to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"This is not a job, it's a career," Sweten said. "You're rewarded with benefits and a living wage."
The University of Montana's UDash bus service, which served about 2,000 riders each day before the pandemic, was closed this week for spring break but will return on Monday with a limited bus schedule as classes go online-only. Those who need rides will have to enter through the back door unless mobility needs require the ramp at the front door. Riders will be asked to take the bus only for essential travel, said director of transportation Jordan Hess.
"We don't normally like to discourage people from using transit, that's the business we're in," Hess said. "But we're encouraging people to walk and bike. It's a good way to promote wellness and not go stir-crazy."
As Montana's university system has asked students to leave campus if possible, Hess said some student drivers have decided to step away for the time being.
"Their return to work is absolutely optional and we've encouraged our drivers to check in, reflect on whether or not they want to come back," Hess said on Friday. "Our No. 1 priority is making sure our drivers are safe."
On the other hand, Hess said several drivers have opted for driving through the rest of the semester. For some, it's a source of income, while others are passionate about the work, Hess said.
Sweten also lauded Mountain Line drivers who continue to show up each day amid a public health crisis.
"We're really fortunate," Sweten said.
Riders have been asked to take part in sanitation efforts, such as washing their hands and keeping with social distance guidelines. Before the downtown transfer center closure announcement, the transportation district had asked people not to spend unnecessary time in the downtown building, although on Friday several people could be seen sitting in the lobby.
Ninja Mike's, a walk-up restaurant inside the transfer center, had closed off its inside-facing window by Friday and had moved all customer transactions to the exterior window. Owner Ethan Sky Siegel said business had been slightly down, but as a restaurant without dine-in services and the ability to expand its hours into weekends, Ninja Mike's was weathering the pandemic well, something he knows is an advantage in a time of unprecedented restaurant closures.
"It's been a lot of Uber Eats and online orders," he said. "We've been trying to promote other businesses, everyone in the service industry" who can use food delivery services as well, he said.
Sweten said adapting to a new normal may be jarring, but important.
"It's still March in Montana," Sweten said. "Not everyone can walk or has their own car. We want to provide amenities to people who need to ride the bus. But nobody's been through this before. We're doing the best we can and it changes every day."
This story has been updated to correct the daily Mountain Line ridership average before the COVID-19 pandemic.
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