Driving through a pandemic: Steamboat Transit drivers serve as community backbone
No matter how busy the time of day or what the weather conditions are, every passenger who steps onto a Steamboat Springs Transit bus while Bob Printy is driving receives the same greeting.
“Hi, how are you?” he asks from behind the wheel.
Most answer with a simple head nod, some with an enthusiastic response and many with no response at all, staring down into their phones or adjusting their earbuds.
Regardless of the passenger’s response, Printy’s demeanor stays the same. He offers a genuine smile and speaks with a soft voice.
“I just genuinely love talking to people,” Printy said. “I keep doing this all these years, because I love people and I love getting to know our riders and hear their stories.”
Printy has driven public transit in various forms since he was 18 years old, for a total of 62 years. His driving career began in New York, then continued in California, Oregon, Washington and finally Steamboat Springs.
“I don’t think there are very many people who can say they’ve spent most of their life being a bus driver,” Printy said with a small chuckle.
Printy starts his day at 5 a.m., picking up passengers from his home in Craig, driving them into Steamboat and spending the day driving around town.
“I get to spend the day getting to know great people and driving around this beautiful town,” Printy said.
Driving in the age of COVID-19
As COVID-19 began to sweep across the U.S. at an uncontrollable speed, transit systems struggled to keep up with changing local ordinances. They worked quickly to balance the safety of their drivers and passengers with the responsibility to get essential workers to their jobs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Transportation Security Administration put out guidelines for all public transit systems at the start of the pandemic. Regardless of masks and social distancing rules in the system’s location, the TSA required masks be worn on board at all times. Buses would decide their capacity limits by taking the length of the bus and dividing by two. In Steamboat’s case, that ended up being 15 passengers per bus.
In a resort community where visitors rely on the bus to take them to the mountain and employees rely on it to get to work, drivers and Steamboat Springs Transit Manager Jonathan Flint said, while they understood the capacity restrictions were necessary, they often caused difficulties for riders.
“There were a few times where I had to turn people away that were crying and telling me that they’re about to lose their job because they can’t get on the bus, and they’re going to be late to work,” said Alicia Woods, a transit driver who has been in the job for about 1 1/2 years. “It’s really hard to look someone in the eye and say ’no’ when they’re begging to get a ride.”
Woods also said the city’s visitors, many of whom were visiting from places not enforcing strict COVID-19 rules, often took issue with capacity restrictions, particularly those with large families who could not ride together or those who were intoxicated.
“Most people paid a lot of money to get here and then being told they can’t get on the free bus is a huge downer for them,“ Woods said. ”They don’t want to hear that.”
While Woods said most passengers treated her with respect, she recalled one male passenger who yelled at her and conducted what she described as “the most severe verbal abuse I’ve ever had.”
The man was visiting and was turned away by two buses before stepping foot aboard Woods’ vehicle. Her bus was empty when she picked him up, but he expected to again be turned away, which is why he lashed out, Woods said.
“Things like that definitely do happen,” Woods said. “It’s just kind of hard to endure that kind of treatment and that’s definitely the hardest part of the job.”
Flint said many drivers had similar stories during the pandemic and ski season, as people were anxious to get out and often were not used to being asked to follow such rules.
“I think we’re all looking forward to when COVID is over so we can stop being the mask police,” Flint said. “The drivers had to enforce that, and it was sometimes very challenging for both our drivers and our customers.”
When drivers have customers who are unwilling to follow rules or causing other issues, they can either contact a supervisor or law enforcement, both of which are done through a radio system. Flint said most of the time drivers are able to resolve the issue without involving authorities, and if officers do become involved, they usually speak with the offender and are able to mediate the situation without making an arrest.
“Some people feel that their rights have been infringed upon,” Flint said. “Our drivers don’t make the rules, and we try to keep the system a safe place for people and their families to ride.”
A community asset
While Steamboat Springs Transit is free within the city and only a low fare to Hayden and Craig, the city charged 50 cents per ticket until the mid-1990s. While the amount was low, Flint said it did make a difference in whether or not people chose to ride the bus or drive their own cars.
The city made the change as it was Colorado’s only ski community to charge a fare, and Steamboat Springs City Council and staff wanted to remain competitive with other communities.
“We didn’t want to lose that competitive edge,” Flint said.
The city also began looking at free transit as more out-of-state visitors came to town and trying to process passengers became difficult, slowing down the operation and causing more frustration among riders and drivers.
“In many ways, it’s less expensive to run a free-to-riders system than it is to charge a fare,” Flint said. “When you charge a fare, everyone has to go through the same door or show a pass.”
Other community members said the free bus is a huge asset to them in an expensive community with a housing shortage.
“If these drivers see you running across the street, they’re stopping for you,” said Kim Sellers, a Steamboat resident who takes the bus everywhere she needs to go. “They’re courteous and they’re friendly, and they’re the backbone of this community.”
While Flint said transit drivers are a vital part of the community, the city has trouble each year recruiting and retaining drivers.
“It is not an easy job,” Flint said. “But it is very rewarding.”
Drivers in training start at $12.75, and once they are hired on full-time, that’s increased to $19.17. The city also provides some housing for its drivers at Flour Mill Apartments. However, the city does not have enough housing for all drivers, which Flint said is a deterrent for many.
Still, drivers said, while the job is difficult, transit staff are usually very supportive.
“We’re like a little family,” Woods said. “It’s like a community and community is so important in a hard job like this.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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