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Transit district drops bus fares in virus response

Ridership plunges as people stay home

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The Sunset Empire Transportation District is eliminating almost all fares through at least May amid plunging ridership over the coronavirus.

Jeff Hazen, the transit district’s executive director, said transit agencies around the region are scrapping fares to reduce transportation barriers and eliminate the handling of cash.

Fares will remain on the Lower Columbia Connector, a route between Astoria and Portland, that Hazen said has had low ridership. Tickets for the route are available online.

Boarding

A man boards a bus heading for Fred Meyer in Warrenton on Tuesday afternoon.

Hazen had initially pushed to eliminate all fares through at least April, but Commissioner Charles Withers suggested 60 days.

“It’s hard to say how long this is going to take,” Withers said of the virus. “But you can’t say let’s do it indefinitely. So I think in 60 days, maybe we’ll have a better feel on it.”

Before the coronavirus, the transit district had budgeted around $18,000 in fare revenue each month in March, April and May. But since the government’s restrictions on activities were issued, the bus service has been down around one-third in ridership.

But bus service is still essential, Hazen said, and he wants to avoid cutting back unless drivers start falling sick. “We’re still carrying hundreds of people a day,” he said.

While losing a third of ridership, the transit district found a rare job engine, so far hiring around 12 sanitation technicians at $14 an hour on a one-month contract to ride each bus route disinfecting after riders. The transit district receives 80% federal reimbursement for expenses related to the virus.

The bus service has also blocked off the front seats to distance drivers from passengers, and provides sanitizer on most routes.

Hazen said he hatched the idea to hire temporary workers after seeing a local business go from around 50 to only a few employees a day after the governor’s order limiting restaurants to takeout only.

“Just hearing that one business lost so many people … we have the opportunity to employ people short term,” he said.

A man waiting for a bus Tuesday at the Astoria Transit Center said he welcomed the break on fares and is pleased with the steps the transit district is taking to keep the buses clean. The man said he lives in Warrenton and was traveling to various grocery stores there and in Astoria looking for supplies.

“My mind keeps going to the Depression back in New York where thousands of people were holding a cup in a soup line,” he said. “Is this where we headed? Am I going to be standing in a soup line somewhere?

“But I’ve been watching people and the precautions that they’re taking on the bus. They’re wiping everything down when people get on.”

The transit district’s board on Tuesday also authorized the closure of the transit center and the Seaside Transit Office and allowing Hazen to make cuts to routes if necessary without board approval. Hazen said he has no plans to cut routes as long as drivers are healthy, but that he’d first scale back weekday then weekend service if necessary.

Hazen would need board approval to shut down the entire bus system.

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

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