EMTA Changes as Response to COVID-19 in Erie County
Erie's public transportation works to promote public health: A Q&A with EMTA CEO Jeremy Peterson
On Tuesday, March 24, the Erie Metro Transit Authority (EMTA) announced layoffs and route changes due to a decrease in ridership caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
These changes went into effect Monday, Mar. 23.
Jeremy Peterson, Chief Executive Officer of EMTA spoke with the Erie Reader this morning to discuss these changes, the 3-tier Emergency Response Plan currently in place during COVID-19, bus sanitation, and what the future looks like for Erie County's public transportation as the public health crisis escalates.
Jeremy Peterson: Well, the EMTA right now is practicing the best safety practices we can perform while providing an essential service to Erie County. So, unfortunately, that has left us faced with a reduction of routes due to a sharp reduction in ridership.
Reduction in ridership has a lot to do with folks heeding the social distancing practices, and also the businesses that have closed throughout most of our main fixed routes.
Hannah McDonald: What role does public transportation play in the City of Erie and Erie County? Because, as the Chief Executive Officer — I assume — have wonderful insight into what part public transportation plays in the city. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
JP: Right, so EMTA provides a vital role within the community of Erie County. We have become — in the last two years — we've enhanced our fixed routes to become more of a regionalized transit agency, more than we ever have been.
But in doing that, we have to understand there's a different paradigm to just bus service. We also have what we call a LIFT or paratransit service that we provide service to folks through the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) demographics, folks that … folks that aren't able to take a fixed route. This is the service that is provided to them. As I said, we have the ADA demographic, you have folks that qualify under the lottery program, and also the medical assistance program as well. So, when we cut service, it's important to know that along any fixed route, we have to provide the LIFT paratransit service within three-quarters of a mile.
So with the reduction of these routes, obviously comes a reduction of LIFT service. However, the fixed-route reduction that was announced yesterday put no fixed bus service on the weekends. I want to assure the community that we will still provide LIFT service on a medical-only basis. So there will still be LIFT service on the weekends.
HM: Can you tell me a little bit about your 3-tier emergency plan and what routes have been changed or canceled as of right now?
JP: So, I'll explain the tiers. We in our Administration union started talking about getting an emergency response plan together to help combat COVID-19, the spread of COVID-19, and help ensure the utmost safety and security of our employees and our valued customers alike.
We came up with a 3-tier Emergency Response Plan. Tier One consists of replacing our normal Monday through Friday fixed route schedules with our Saturday schedule and no weekend service. So basically what that means, to clear up any confusion, is a normal schedule that our big-bus fixed-route division operates on a Saturday will be the same level of service that we provide Monday through Friday. And then there will be no Saturday and Sunday service.
Now, what that means for our LIFT division is its business as usual for LIFT Monday through Friday. And then they'll enforce medical-only trips for Saturday and Sunday through the LIFT.
So, that's tier one. Tier two — we would move to the next step in this tiered process as information is divulged to us, as we look at our ridership numbers, as we heed warning from the governor, PennDOT, the Federal Transit Administration, the CDC, or obviously the county health department — but we would move to tier two if it got to a point where we needed to move.
Tier two, basically again, out big-bus fixed-route service schedule would still be applied to weekdays. No weekend routes. The only change here is the weekday service would stop at 7 p.m. daily.
And then tier three would be of an emergent nature where we need to shut down. EMTA would still focus on emergency operations. The fixed-route service would cease with their trips and operations to conduct medical trips only. Emergency Operations will include medical trips, distribution of supplies, and emergency transit.
HM: Are we on any timeline moving towards those right, now or is it on an as need basis?
JP: An as-needed basis. I don't see us moving past tier one. We are monitoring our ridership hour to hour and daily. We're also monitoring what's going on with the COVID pandemic, too. Is it getting better, is it getting worse? Are there any cases that have affected maybe one of our employees, maybe one of our passengers, so on and so forth. So you know, Hannah, you know as well as I do with watching the news and reading the paper that, you know, if we have one driver, let's say, as an example, that we're going to come down and be affected by COVID, that could create havoc amongst our system because the driver could come in here — that employee could come in here — and infect 10 or 20 other employees.
So, you know, with that being said … we had to come up with a system and sort of identified, 'Hey, if this were to happen, what do we do? What do we move to?'
So, we're watching what happens. What's happening locally, we're staying tuned to what the County Executive is presenting each day. We're looking at our ridership. We're looking at our system. And we're also paying attention to what PennDOT and what the Federal Transit Administration is telling us as well.
HM: Can you tell me a little bit more about the ridership decreases? How much has that that decreased in the last two weeks? What are your numbers looking like today?
JP: We're averaging — normally on a normal workday — we're seeing between eight to 10,000 passengers. Currently [this is] declining each day. For right now, we're averaging anywhere between 1,500 to 2,500 rides per day, which is close to an 80 percent decrease in ridership.
JP: We've also known that on the LIFT paratransit side, folks are starting to more or less stay in their house, their houses or their homes.
We're noticing a lot more medical trips only being scheduled, so where we would normally field maybe 800 trips a day to the LIFT paratransit side, we're noticing maybe anywhere between 150 and 200 at the very, at the most being scheduled to go.
So, obviously that's a very sharp decline.
HM: Really, I mean, You had said "sharp" before, but the numbers speak for themselves.
JP: What we didn't want, as an agency — given the fact that we're essential in nature — to come up with a drastic change … the customer sort of spoke on behalf of EMTA, given the fact that ridership numbers are alike both on the fixed route side, and the paratransit side.
Now we understand, unfortunately, that with the reduction of service we're going to upset some people and some customers that depend on our service. However, we have to — as a management team, as an administration, as a CEO — I have to make sure that we ensure safety of the highest level in regards to our drivers employees and our administration here as well as provide [for] customers, too.
HM: How are you ensuring safety? And can you tell me a bit about your cleaning process that you have for the buses that are still running, and what steps are these drivers taking to protect themselves, but also their co-workers?
JP: So we're handing out gloves, some PPE for the drivers. We also directed our EMTA maintenance department to maintain a heightened level of bus cleanliness inside all buses. We have a bus cleaning department. We've actually beefed that department up by another four to five employees. EMTA continues its daily disinfection process on all vehicles using EPA-approved and CDC-recommended cleaning products.
With that being said, every night we have a third party cleaner that mists — or basically fogs — the common areas of our buildings where employees gather where employees work, our intermodal facility down at the Bayfront, is sanitized every night.
Then our third-party vendor who comes in and cleans, they're actually doing a second or more of a deep clean after they do their original wipe down and clean up. So we're doing everything we can possibly.
Obviously, our LIFT folks and the people that we transport on the LIFT, have more of a compromised immune system then the people on our fixed-route buses, right? So, what we've done as we have directed the drivers of the LIFT services … Anytime somebody alights, or gets off the bus, the driver wipes down and disinfects the common areas of that bus, so it ensures safety for the next person that gets on the bus. They get on and not have to worry about not touching this without touching wraps, and it's already been decontaminated or sanitized for their pick up.
HM: In New York City, Boston, New Jersey, and many other cities like that. They're taking very similar steps to what EMTA is doing, but New York City has spoken about they are having major budget concerns due to the closure of their routes as a majority of their funding comes from passenger fares. Is that a challenge facing the EMTA? And if so, how great is that challenge?
JP: Yes, it's definitely a challenge. Obviously, when you're operating a transit agency in New York City, it's a lot different than Erie, Pennsylvania. But yes, every transit agency is feeling the pinch. We've been working with the FDA and PennDot. Anytime we reduce routes, we notify them right away of how we're operating. Once again, PennDot and the FDA, are our major subsidies, and they're the ones who heavily subsidize EMTA and transit agencies across the state of Pennsylvania. Obviously, too, we've been in contact with our local governments, as well, given the fact that they subsidize us on a smaller level, but they do have a stake in EMTA. So, we've been very careful about how we monitor the ridership and the fare itself. And we've reported the amounts and we will report the reduction of our routes to PennDOT and the FDA. I know they've been working tirelessly down in Harrisburg to come up with a plan for transportation as far as any losses that we incur.
We do know that there are some agencies that have a plan to go to a free-fair type service. The problem with a free-fair that I see is if you really start throwing up free-fair, more people flock to the bus. We want to still maintain social distancing. We still want to protect our employees, and we want to protect our customers, too. This isn't the time to start packing busses, you know?
If we have a route that has more than, let's say 15 people on it, the protocol is that they call our dispatcher, our dispatcher sends another supply bus out there to pick those folks up and get them to where they need to be. So, I will tell you, EMTA has been sort of ahead of the curve on this.
We took a very proactive approach to take this head-on. When you watch the news, a lot of people are reactive to this. I have to say that we were very proactive, and I have to commend the administration here, as well as the union — the ATU local 568 on their part of this too.
HM: I would have to agree that these are very proactive steps that you're telling me about. Many of my questions that I was really wondering about are problems that other larger cities are facing — such as bus overcrowding and sanitizing these facilities, and whatnot — but it seems that the EMTA is ahead of that, which is fantastic to hear.
JP: We encourage customers as they board our buses, leave some extra space between themselves and others. You know, that form of social distancing can help protect them and others from the spread of COVID-19.
We would also like to let our customers know to make sure you have your fare ready before you get on the bus. It limits that time that the person was at the farebox in close proximity or distance to the driver. And the people behind them, too. We want to make sure that the customers are being proactive, as well.
HM: And so as a professional, whose job is working with public transportation, what do you think of the relationship between public transportation and public health? Is that something that you've ever really had to think about much before any of this?
JP: When I first took over at the EMTA, one of my biggest things was the appearance. Our buses were dirty inside. They could be cleaned up a little better, they could be looking a little nicer, so on and so forth.
So, roughly eight months ago — and we talked for almost a year about a process that gets the insides of our buses clean regularly, rather than every once in a while — … we had started a cleaning department at EMTA. And this was before all of this COVID and Coronavirus was even a thought, but we started about eight months ago with this bus cleaning department. And those folks have been there, their main job is to, as buses come off their runs at the end of the night, they are to do a deep detail of the busses.
So we knew that that was sort of a proactive step, and not only just helping out the community, but also ensuring safety and more of a healthy lifestyle for the drivers as well.
HM: And how are your drivers doing? How are they feeling about all of this? What are the responses that you're gaining from them as they continue to do this essential work?
JP: Once again, you know, this is something we haven't been faced with — the world hasn't been faced with — (for) over a 100 years, you know. Back in 1917, the Spanish flu epidemic.
Now, it's 2020 and we're dealing with this. What we're hearing from some of the drivers is, you know, we have some drivers that are panicking, some that are okay with it, but a good majority of our drivers and our employees realize that we are an essential service. We're part of emergency preparedness. And it sort of excites people when you're in the public service field.
So we sort of put ourselves right up there with, you know, the EMTs, the fire departments, police departments, Emergycare, those sorts of people, because we're trying to help get back to work.
What people don't understand is we're a part of a lot of people's emergency plans. So if there needs to be an evacuation, they call us to do that. So, there's a lot of drivers or employees, I should say, that take pride in the public service we're providing.
Obviously, with reduction of ridership and layoffs, that's an unfortunate step, that no employer ever wants to take, and we're dealing with that too, but as far as the pandemic itself, I think our drivers have responded very positively in trying to combat it and keep themselves and their customers safe.
HM: That is wonderful to hear. And, I did not realize that the bus system was part of the emergency response team. That's, that's fascinating, actually.
Is there anything else that you would like EMTA riders to know, that maybe we haven't talked about?
JP: We want everybody to be self-assured that once it is safe — completely safe — and we get the green light to start slowly opening up businesses, we will get back to a full schedule as soon as we possibly can. Once again these steps were made to ensure safety amongst our staff and our valued customers, so just be patient with us. We understand that the service may not meet everybody's requirements currently. However, we will get back to full service here shortly. As long as we do our parts, I feel that our bus service will be back up and running at full capacity, soon.
HM: That's wonderful to hear.
JP: We always take pride in EMTA because we never, we never shut down during the winter. The difference between us and let's say Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or a New York City transit. No, they get a few inches of snow, they're shutting their service down. Here, we got several feet of snow — as you remember back in '16, '17 — but we still run you know, but it's weird because this virus has actually forced us to make moves and actually reduce our service. So this is something we've never had to deal with in a very long time.
But we feel that if we can tackle this, and take this head-on, we can take any challenge that we're faced with.
HM: That is a wonderful sentiment to end on really, I mean, if you can handle this pandemic, you can handle just about anything it seems.
[This article has been edited for clarity]
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Hannah McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org