Pandemic threatens rural transit services

In November, Leesa Lester, director of transit for the Southern Iowa Trolley, ordered three new lightweight buses for her agency.

They should arrive next month, but – for the first time – she doesn’t want them.

Normally, these ADA-compliant buses would add to the Southern Iowa Trolley fleet, which provides public transportation for seven southern Iowa counties. Lester, however, may need the money to make his paycheck as the novel coronavirus threatens the state’s rural transit systems.

With people staying home to avoid getting sick, attendance has plummeted statewide. At Southern Iowa Trolley, it’s down more than 92% since early March, Lester said. The income went with it.

“It’s enough to make you cry,” she said.

More than 30 transit agencies serve Iowa, 16 in major rural “areas,” where they are sometimes the only option for getting people to work, the grocery store or the doctor’s office.

“I don’t know of any other group that could help these people,” Lester said.

Typically, buses and vans provide door-to-door on-demand service, with customers calling to plan rides in advance. The agencies mainly serve an elderly and disabled clientele, but they also transport schoolchildren, workers and people without a car.

Then COVID-19 arrived in Iowa, infecting 235 people Friday and killing three. Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday expanded the state’s disaster health proclamation in an effort to further mitigate the spread of the virus.

Everyone in the state has been told to stay home to mitigate the spread of the disease, which has strained small businesses, hotels and transit agencies, which depend on ridership to their income.

► More: The latest on the coronavirus outbreak in Iowa

Agencies have been forced to cut trips and lay off drivers to cover costs. The Regional Transit Commission, which serves Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Chickasaw and Grundy counties, suspended all public transport servicesexcept for “vital medical trips”, such as dialysis treatments.

Some transit managers have wondered if the pandemic could be the death knell for rural agencies that aren’t getting enough help.

Speaking from his office in Creston, Lester said SIT had halted travel to Adair County as a precaution due to the positive coronavirus case there. Without state or federal financial assistance, she said her agency could be forced to close in a few months.

“We are going to stay open as long as we can,” she said.

► More: Iowa City suspends bus fares as ridership declines amid spread of COVID-19

“What happens if someone can’t get to the pharmacy? »

Julia Castillo, executive director of the Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency and chair of the Iowa Public Transit Association board, said regional transit systems typically don’t have a lot of cash reserves.

Without it, there’s no way to pay drivers when schools, nursing homes and adult daycares close. Customers can’t get to these locations, which often contract with transit services, so agency revenue evaporates.

So far, HIRTA has had to lay off more than 75% of its workforce as ridership has fallen by more than 82% – from around 1,100 rides per day to 184. However, the elderly and disabled in its seven counties still have to go to grocery stores. and doctor’s offices, and a complete closure could prevent these trips.

Rural areas often do not offer grocery delivery or ride-sharing services to replace public transportation.

“They have medical issues that still need to be taken care of. They might not be able to get to the pharmacy,” Castillo said. “…Our fear is: what happens if someone can’t get to the pharmacy? »

John McCurdy, executive director of the Southwest Iowa Planning Council, which operates the Southwest Iowa Transit Agency, said he currently only needs about 25 of his 76 drivers in his eight counties. The remaining two-thirds are temporarily laid off.

SWITA has decided to close its taxi service for safety reasons – small vehicles do not provide good social distancing – but it continues to operate its work routes, taking workers to a distribution plant in Menards, for example.

Most of McCurdy’s drivers are over 60, so he wants them to stay home to limit exposure to COVID-19. He assumes the pandemic will continue for several weeks, past the proposed April 13 date to reopen schools.

“I have to put these drivers out of work,” he said.

► More: Coronavirus in Iowa: State sees record weekly unemployment claims, mirroring US rise

HIRTA, which operates in seven counties in central Iowa, is looking for creative ways to help as more and more of its buses sit empty with idle drivers. When the residents of Winterset finished a food drive, they put the supplies on a HIRTA bus which then delivered the food.

“We’re just trying to find ways to best help communities,” Castillo said. “We have the vehicles to do it.”

Need help

Iowa’s 35 transit agencies, from rural regional systems to fixed-route agencies in major cities, operate in all 99 counties, theoretically providing service to every Iowan that needs transit. ‘a trip.

That’s not the case in neighboring Nebraska and other states, McCurdy said. For them, Iowa is a “model”.

He worried about the long-term effects of the pandemic. If less financially stable agencies go bankrupt, who steps in to provide essential bus service? Does anybody?

“Are we maintaining the level of service statewide or is this becoming a kind of Swiss cheese-like card?” he said.

He also fears that bus services will still experience a recovery phase once the pandemic is over. People won’t be eager to get on the bus immediately, so ridership would still be low.

Castillo said there is a “real possibility” that the pandemic will be the deathblow for agencies that don’t get additional funding.

Iowa transit directors are hoping the stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Senate late Wednesday will help. He understands $25 billion in emergency transit funding, distributed through the Federal Transit Administration. The bill still needs to be approved by the US House of Representatives.

Castillo didn’t know how quickly that money could flow to Iowa agencies, so she hopes the state will step in to help save an “essential” service that helps fuel the economy.

“Public transit in the State of Iowa needs the help of the State of Iowa to continue,” she said.

City systems suspend fares and change routes

The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected public transit systems in major cities and metropolitan areas like Des Moines.

The Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority saw ridership drop between 40% and 50%, forcing administrators to reduce service times and frequency on multiple routes. It also waived its fares and encouraged people to board through the back doors of buses, away from their drivers.

But medical professionals could still rely on the bus or people needing food, said Erin Hockman, DART’s chief marketing and communications officer.

“There are essential business matters that still need to happen to protect the health and safety of all Iowans…these people need to have a way to get to work,” she said.

In the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, the Metropolitan Transit Authority maintained service for the same reason. Like DART, the MET vigorously cleans its buses, said agency chief executive Mark Little.

Employees of the agency’s maintenance shop also built a pivoting plexiglass divider for drivers, creating a barrier on their buses between them and their passengers.

Even with the precautions in place, Little echoed Hockman’s directive, which would be counterproductive in normal times.

“If you don’t need to ride, please don’t,” he said.

While the pandemic has siphoned off ridership, DART and MET aren’t in the same dire straits as rural systems. They are primarily funded by property taxes which are mostly insulated from the outbreak, unlike the contracts rural providers have with nursing homes, schools and adult daycares.

“We’re lucky in that regard,” Hockman said.

Austin Cannon covers the city of Des Moines for the registry. Contact him at [email protected] or 515-284-8398. Your subscription makes this work possible. Subscribe today to

Melvin Z. Madore