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RVTD ridership down 57%

From April to July, Rogue Valley Transportation District ridership decreased by around 57%, causing a loss of $130,000 in fare revenue.

According to RVTD General Manager Julie Brown, fares now cover nearly 16% of the district’s operational costs — down from a healthy 20% earlier this year.

While new COVID-19 rules enforced by the district are largely responsible for the dips in ridership and fares, Brown says the rules have also allowed buses to safely remain running — albeit with less capacity and some altered routes.

“We are truly trying to provide a level of transportation for people who have no other means of travel,” she said, adding that RVTD has been proactive in its response to the pandemic.

RVTD began requiring bus operators and passengers wear masks in early April, and that passengers stay 6 feet away from drivers and 3 feet away from other riders.

As a result, the number of available seats on a bus is now limited. Only 19 people — not including the driver — are allowed to board RVTD’s 35-foot long bus. Two routes — route 1X to Ashland and route 2 to west Medford — have also been suspended.

Unlike other transit systems in Oregon, RVTD has chosen not to suspend fare collection. The district made the decision with the intent of discouraging people from riding the bus for non-essential purposes.

“In a free fare system everybody is going to come and use your system,” Brown said.

Transit systems across the state, like the Lane Transit District that serves the larger metropolitan areas of Eugene and Springfield, have stopped collecting fares and have passengers enter the rear of the bus.

In a March 19 press release, LTD general manager Aurora Jackson said this measure would prevent passengers from lingering near the front upon boarding, and prevent unnecessary interactions with bus operators.

Brown, however, said that can lead to crowding at the back of the bus, and also presents difficulties for passengers with mobility devices who need to enter at the front.

RVTD driver Dorothey Olsen, says most passengers have complied with the measures.

“Ninety nine percent of riders understand what’s going on,” she said.

For those who refuse to wear masks and do not cite a medical condition as an excuse, Brown said RVTD drivers have one response. “It’s pretty simple, we just tell them they’re not riding.”

Olsen has driven for RVTD since 2017. In earlier stages of the pandemic, she and other drivers worried about how their jobs would impact their health — when their occupation brings people of all walks of life into a single confined space.

“At first, I was really paranoid about it,” Olsen said, admitting that she used to keep the windows open on her buses to filter the air.

Now, she said she’s more comfortable with the new rules in place. The challenging part is looking behind her on the bus to make sure passengers are abiding by the rules.

Through the Federal CARES act, however, RVTD has received over $7 million to help shore up operation costs, lost fare box revenue, and clean-up crew services. Buses are now cleaned and sanitized every two hours.

Looking ahead to the fall offers RVTD more challenges. Brown says RVTD is working on plans for when Southern Oregon University, Rogue Community College and local high schools return to in-person instruction, explaining it may have to expand routes, so service reaches more people while maintaining social distancing inside buses. Brown says a lot of their planning depends on what schools end up doing.

Earlier this week, SOU president Linda Schott announced the university would largely hold remote instruction for fall term courses.

According 2018 passenger survey conducted by RVTD, 13% of riders said they were students.

“We’re going to have to really evaluate what we’re going to do during peak times,” Brown said.

File photo / Mail Tribune People wait to catch the bus at the Rogue Valley Transportation District depot on South Front Street in Medford.