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Regional Transit Authorities Adjust To Coronavirus Pandemic

A building with a curved design sits beneath a grey sky
Josh Landes
Berkshire Regional Transit Authority headquarters in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

From Albany to the Pioneer Valley, regional transit authorities across the WAMC listening area are responding to a drop in ridership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority recorded a ridership of over half a million in 2019, with its paratransit services registering almost 30,000 one-way trips. Now, those numbers are plummeting as Massachusetts shutters major institutions and bans in-house service at restaurants and bars in an attempt to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

“The schools have already shut down so yes, our ridership won’t be there," said BRTA Administrator Robert Malnati. On Monday, fixed route ridership was 40% lower than 2019. On Tuesday, it was 50% lower. Despite the massive drop, service continues.

“Right now we are still an integral part of the community," said Malnati. "We’re a lifeline for a lot of people who don’t have a vehicle to get them to the grocery store. There are still people who need to go to work who don’t have access to a vehicle. So we are still providing that type of service for the community.”

Malnati says the authority continues to monitor the situation, and changes could still come to Berkshire County’s sole public transit provider.

“We would be looking at possibly going from a weekday schedule to a Saturday schedule where there’s less hours involved and see how that is, and if certain areas are impacted past that, that would have to be discussed with operations – how do we continue to serve that area,” said the administrator.

An hour to the east, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority in Springfield is facing its own dip in ridership. It serves Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties.

“Normally we transport anywhere from 10 million to 12 million riders a year. And right now, our ridership has reduced by about 40% since the outbreak of the coronavirus," said Brandy Pelletier, the PVTA’s head of marketing. Unlike the BRTA, its service has already been curtailed, beginning with routes related to the mostly empty UMass Amherst campus.

“All of those routes pretty much have changes since the schools are not in session, and then the decision has been made to change all of the other routes to a Saturday modified schedule," Pelletier said. "So everyone will go by the Saturday schedule, but the modified part of it is we’re reducing the hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on every route. And then on Sunday, we will continue to offer regular Sunday service.”

Pelletier says the authority is following the lead of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, and that other changes could come if more closures are ordered.

“Right now we’re hoping that we’ll only have to limit to Saturday service, but worse case we drop down to a Sunday service schedule,” she told WAMC.

Meanwhile, in the Albany area, the Capital District Transportation Authority is still running full service.

“We transport about 60,000 customers daily and that’s between our fixed route service, our Northway Express service," said Jamie Watson, the director of corporate communications for the CDTA. With the state instituting widespread closures due to COVID-19, those numbers are taking a hit.

“We know from talking with operators and just taking a look at our daily ridership counts we are down, but don’t have a percentage for that right now,” said Watson.

Almost a third of CDTA’s ridership comes from the region’s colleges.

“So obviously as you can imagine, as these institutions have been closing or modifying their schedules, our ridership dips in that area,” Watson said.

For now, those who rely on Capital Region public transit can expect full service to continue.

“If we get to a point where ridership has dramatically decreased, then that’s where we really take a hard look at look at, OK, the service that we’re providing, where can we trim back service," Watson said. "And there are ways we do it, the same way when we operate during a snowstorm. We go to a Saturday schedule then have some other routes as part of that as well, so we do have a model that we use when we are looking at events that happen that would impact service.”

All three authorities say they have implemented elaborate cleaning procedures for their respective fleets while they operate during the pandemic.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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