Sonoma County bus operators chart uncertain future as pandemic wears on

Amid ridership declines of 80% or more and deep funding setbacks, transit operators are plotting how they restore service and exploring potential mergers.|

Sonoma County’s bus operators have weathered severe ridership and revenue declines amid the three-month coronavirus shutdown and now confront hard questions about how to restore service as restrictions are eased and more passengers resurface in need of a ride.

That outlook remains murky as the stay-home orders have profoundly altered work and travel patterns, with potentially long-term implications for the Bay Area’s more than two dozen public transit systems. Some are pressing forward with merger talks due to the severity of the financial crisis they face.

Their shared obstacle is no surprise; It remains unclear when ridership might return to pre-COVID levels, with operators grappling with how to convince transit users that buses are clean, safe and reliable ways to get about.

“At this junction, there’s tremendous uncertainty,” said Denis Mulligan, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge District, which oversees bus, ferry and bridge toll services. “Public transit faces a huge challenge in restoring public trust. But in order for the economy to fully reopen in the San Francisco Bay Area, transit will have to be mass transit again.”

Along with other operators, the Golden Gate bus network will have to navigate the near future with trimmed budgets.

The revenue stream from rider fares is down to trickle - for Sonoma County Transit, Santa Rosa CityBus and Petaluma Transit it vanished after each opted in March to suspend collections to limit driver-passenger interactions and reduce spread of the virus.

State sales and gas taxes, which subsidize local public transit systems, are expected to take a major hit as well while the nation endures a financial recession tied to the shutdown.

Emergency federal aid of nearly $1.3 billion was directed to the Bay Area’s transit agencies through the CARES Act economic stimulus package. The three local bus systems together received about $6 million in the first round of funding, while Golden Gate Transit received more than $30 million. A second, smaller round of the federal funding through the region’s transportation commission is expected in July.

To cut costs and revamp service amid ridership drops of at least 80% across the four systems, routes and bus pickups were drastically scaled back to match more limited weekend service levels. Santa Rosa’s bus system, for example, dropped service to just 25% of the typical weekday and officials don’t foresee returning to greater than 75% of pre-pandemic service for at least another year, said Rachel Ede, deputy director of the city’s transportation and public works department.

“We definitely have a significant financial challenge going forward,” she said. “But it’s not the first challenges the industry has had and we will be able to get through this and be able to restore service, and the crisis won’t last forever. Many, many people need us to be operating and we’re going to be there, but it means a slow and iterative process to build back to where we were, and honestly service may look different.”

While plans are made for restoring additional fixed routes, some agencies across the region, including Santa Rosa CityBus, have incorporated more call-ahead service, where passengers book a ride the day before and wait for a pickup. The system’s evolution could lead to some future on-demand service, Ede said, including possible partnerships with companies like Uber and Lyft.

But efficiencies still exist with traditional bus service, which moves more passengers around in fewer vehicles. And as people again become comfortable with public transit, which has ramped up to multiple daily cleanings and nightly sanitizing, yet another challenge will present itself - limiting capacity per bus to comply with social distancing guidelines.

“Passenger demand will influence the level of recovery with SCT’s route network,” said Bryan Albee, Sonoma County Transit’s systems manager. “As ridership activity increases and if social distancing recommendations continue, additional buses will be deployed to add capacity where needed.”

Because students make up a large portion of bus ridership, the operators also will be forced to adapt to decisions by local school districts to reopen classrooms; Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University, meanwhile, have both signaled that remote instruction will be employed for most classes.

That shift will likely mean still-deeper funding holes and sustained service cuts for bus systems, said Jared Hall, transit manager for Petaluma Transit.

The strain has spurred merger talks between Bay Area transit operators, according to Supervisor David Rabbitt.

“Those conversations were already happening, but there’s kind of a new imperative now just based on the fact that there’s such great challenges ahead,” Ede said. “So it creates opportunities to think about how we coordinate and work together in different ways as we restore service within limited resources. We need to continue offering a baseline of mobility to riders, because the majority of them don’t have a lot of other options, and it’s still a critical piece to keeping Santa Rosa and the county running.”

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