LAVTA suspended fare collection at the beginning of the pandemic to minimize contact between drivers and riders. Photo courtesy LAVTA.

After adapting to hardships driven by the coronavirus pandemic last year, the Bay Area’s small transit agencies are still facing bumps in the road.

COVID-19 vaccine distribution is expected to help smooth the path toward recovery, while forthcoming funding will relieve budgets and manage transitions from the current slump. But these measures don’t immunize local operators from a substantive challenge: When will Bay Area residents return in earnest to offices and in-person learning?

Ridership demand is “still very hard to predict,” said Nancy Whelan, general manager at Marin Transit.

This dilemma affects transit agencies of all sizes, but small operators serving small Bay Area communities — where students or older populations are a big part of ridership — have to be particularly nimble.

“Before the pandemic, we operated three routes: two fixed and one dial-a-ride,” said Brandon Thomson, general manager of the Delta Breeze in Rio Vista, a Solano County city where nearly half the population is over age 65. “When the shelter-in-place order was issued, we modified Route 52 [a BART station feeder] and only operate that if there’s demand. And the hours dedicated to that route were shifted to dial-a-ride.”

In interviews with the Monitor, Thomson and other transit managers recounted the flurry of service adjustments their agencies made when COVID-19 emerged, and discussed the ways their agencies are continuing to refine how to approach planning and operations issues moving forward.

To trim costs, they cut routes to schools and business parks made vacant by mid-March shelter-in-place orders. To slow the coronavirus’s spread, they invested in new safety and cleaning measures. In some cases, they waived fares to limit driver-passenger contact. They also limited how many passengers could ride at once, to allow sufficient space onboard for social distancing.

The Wheels Bus system run by the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA) is losing $500,000 a month that “we would otherwise have if it weren’t for the pandemic,” said Executive Director Michael Tree. Ridership dropped 90 percent the week of March 16, forcing elimination of one-quarter of its service, mainly school and commuter routes. Marin Transit suffered an 80 percent ridership drop across all services at the pandemic’s peak. It eliminated routes serving schools and the Muir Woods shuttle.

“To meet distancing requirements, we were passing people up,” Whelan said. “So we added service, which meant more frequent service on the most heavily traveled routes.”

Since March, Marin Transit’s ridership has rebounded slightly, down 60 percent compared to last year. But fare revenue for fiscal year 2020-2021 is on track to fall by $1.6 million, due in part to suspended services. Going forward, Marin Transit expects “some drop in demand because if people can telecommute they may continue to do that, or [at least] on a partial basis,” Whelan said, citing survey results.

The East Bay’s County Connection experienced driver absenteeism and dropped routes, including those serving BART and the Bishop Ranch Business Park. Ridership on fixed routes bottomed out at 15 percent in March, and is now about 30 to 35 percent of where it was about a year ago. The system lost $1.2 million through December.

Sonoma County Transit reduced its schedule to “Saturday-level” service, equating to roughly 56 percent of its pre-COVID-19 service hours, said Transit Systems Manager Bryan Albee. It has since brought back some routes, operating about 70 percent of what it did before the coronavirus. It also ended a 10-month fare collection hiatus on February 1.

Even as they grapple with these disturbances, transit managers said the tough situation has actually created an opportunity to view systems through a new lens and start better service plans. They want to create a rider experience that’s fair, efficient, connected, and may help propel them out from under the current crunch.

“This is an opportunity to do things differently than we have in the past, which is something we all should be looking at,” Albee said.

“General managers from all the agencies, both large and small, meet once a week, so there is a lot more sharing of information,” Whelan added.

Service, schedule, and mobility improvements could be among the coronavirus’s lasting effects. Sonoma County Transit is exploring fare system changes by simplifying the number of fare zones and charging a flat rate for inner-city service. It also wants to shift to a seven-day schedule instead of a weekday and weekend approach on intercity routes. The City of Rio Vista is planning to pilot micro-transit services, while County Connection recently began a paratransit “One Seat Regional Ride” that eliminates transfers across several service areas. Bus Wheels is building “rate-your-ride” features into a customer app. LAVTA also is testing an autonomous vehicle that’ll eventually carry passengers between the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station and nearby locations.

Marin Transit is enhancing its equity and social justice policies and practices, as staff are creating an equity statement to present to the board of directors in March, in addition to drafting a work plan integrating equity, diversity, and inclusion across all functions of the organization. One area of focus is developing a better understanding about community mobility and transportation concerns. The agency is also considering fare policy improvements so trips are more equitable and cost-effective for low-income and special-needs riders.

Sonoma County Transit recently added two new all-electric buses in a transition toward a zero-emission fleet. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Transportation & Public Works.

Lastly, Marin Transit, Sonoma County Transit, and Bus Wheels are in various stages of transitioning fleets to zero-emission buses.

The regional revival framework is intended to come from the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) created the group last spring to guide the future of the Bay Area’s public transportation network. It’s made up of more than 30 elected officials, business and labor groups, advocates, and public transit managers. Marin Transit’s Whelan and LAVTA’s Michael Tree are both members.

The task force’s focus is development of a “transformation action plan” and four related goals. One is to advance equity, in part by acknowledging disparities and investing equitably. The pandemic highlighted gaps between people who rely solely on public transit and those who have other choices, like car commuting or working from home.

Another area of planning is network management and governance reforms. The task force is in the early stages of fleshing out options, including defining problems and reviewing roles and responsibilities, said MTC spokesperson John Goodwin in an e-mail.

There have been various policy ideas and efforts introduced since the 1970s to advance regional transportation connectivity, underscoring coordination difficulties among more than two dozen operators. But one idea under consideration now is creation of a network manager.

“The task force will focus on discussing what a network manager is and should be,” Goodwin said. “It’s not yet clear when or even how the task force will take up the issue of recommending who should play the role of network manager.”

Related considerations like legislation, organizational decisions, interagency coordination, funding, and new commission policies might be on the table, too, depending on how recommendations unfold.

In the meantime, MTC staff have been meeting regularly with transit operators, including a subgroup of small systems who’ve sent letters to the task force to consider specific concerns like revenue needs. Local transit received a collective $1.3 billion in CARES Act funding last year, which was divvied up among individual agencies by MTC. An additional lifeline, $975 million from the federal stimulus package approved in December, will soon be distributed by MTC to operators in the San Francisco-Oakland, San Jose, and Santa Rosa metro areas.

New federal funding and additional to-be-determined amounts from the Federal Transit Administration will ultimately be distributed to all Bay Area transit agencies, Goodwin said. California’s portion of FTA funds is received and allocated by Caltrans. Anyone wishing to follow transit recovery can virtually attend task force meetings, or receive updates via local operator board meetings. MTC is planning public polling this spring to learn how residents feel about returning to transit, Goodwin said.

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.