What local transit looks like in a worsening pandemic
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Riding the bus will look different this ski season as transit officials adjust to new guidance from the state about how to keep drivers and passengers safe while using public transportation during a pandemic.
Guidance released by state health officials last month requires capacity to be limited to 50% and that riders should maintain at least 6 feet of distance between non-household members.
“Our local economy depends a lot on our ability to provide these types of services,” said Scott Cowman, environmental health director for the county.
Bus ridership sharply increases as the winter approaches in Steamboat Springs. While they move about 1,200 passengers per day in the spring and fall, in the winter season they average about 6,000 passengers per day.
Jonathan Flint, transit manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, said the new regulations released last month do not change much for the buses they operate. While the way to configure what the capacity allowed on a bus would be has changed, no matter how it is calculated it comes out to a max of 15 passengers on a bus.
“How we arrived at 15 people has changed but that actual number of 15 hasn’t,” Flint said.
One thing they have really been pushing for working with the Colorado Transit Association and other health officials is to get a final version of what the guidelines are going to be. This new guidance allows for him to better plan.
People should not try to use the bus if they have been showing signs of COVID-19, have tested positive or have had close contact with a positive case.
Everyone on the bus is required to wear a mask and the first few rows of seats behind the driver have been blocked off so they can ensure enough space to social distance between the driver and the passenger. Some seats have also been blocked off and hand sanitizer is available on the bus.
Passengers will also enter the bus through the back entrance. People who need the bus to kneel or use the wheelchair ramp will still be able to use the front entrance.
Each time a driver returns to the Stockbridge Transit Center, they will go through and wipe down all stanchions, railings, pull cords and other surfaces touched by passengers with disinfectant wipes.
When drivers trade off buses they will wipe down all the surfaces the drivers touch such as the steering wheel. Each night all buses are cleaned with an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect the bus.
Each bus also has an air filtration system that replaces the air between 12 and 16 times each hour, well above a recommendation Flint cited of five times an hour.
“That is one of the biggest things for cutting down on the transmission of at least the aerosol particles,” Flint said.
Flint said they have seen about 95% of people riding the bus are ready with their mask on when the bus shows up at a stop. For the rest, Flint said they have not had any issues when a rider is asked to put a mask on.
While they only operate about four buses currently, during the peak ski season Flint said there are 11 buses running.
One of the biggest problem areas for transit officials is at the ski resort around the time the mountain closes. Flint said in a typical season they would fill buses to the 60-person capacity routinely in these situations.
Flint said he envisions when there are crowds, people will line up and fill buses as they are available.
With the exception of the Gondola Transit Center, they don’t anticipate having more than 15 people at any one stop. When a bus becomes full, the driver will change the destination sign to full and pass by stops on the route until there is more capacity on the bus.
“I don’t anticipate that we will be seeing a lot of bus stops where you have to come in and say ‘you can get on and you can’t get on,’” Flint said.
Flint said when he rides the bus he will start planning on getting to the bus stop earlier and recognizing that he might have to wait for the next bus because of limited capacity.
There have been instances both on local and regional buses where riders have not been allowed to get on because the bus was already at capacity. Flint said he anticipates many of the buses will run at or near capacity this season.
“For some transit systems, they have got extra equipment and extra personnel to be able to put two or three buses out where historically they only ran a single bus,” Flint said. “Right now, we don’t have the equipment or the personnel to do that.”
And Flint can’t just walk down to the local bus dealership and buy a new bus or two to add to the system’s capacity, even if he had extra money in his budget.
Buying a new bus takes years. Steamboat Transit is in the process of bringing two new buses online with a goal of having them in service this week. The process for purchasing the new buses started in 2017.
At Steamboat Resort, they are limiting capacity on shuttles and have plexiglass separating the driver from passengers. They are also encouraging just members of the same household sit together on the shuttle.
“We are encouraging people to drop off at the resort,” said Loryn Duke, spokesperson for the resort. “The driver drops their group off at the resort and only the driver goes down to the Meadows Lot. That way we can help with capacity limitations on the shuttles.”
Sarah Jones, director of sustainability and community engagement at Steamboat Resort said they are also limiting capacity on chairlifts and the gondola to 50%. Jones also said they will have several mazes and a “ghost lane” as part of their line system to maintain social distancing.
Mark Walker, president of Resort Group LLC, which operates shuttles, said communication with guests before they arrive is key for them to have a good experience.
“It is all about setting that expectation ahead of time, setting that expectation upon check in, setting that expectation with signage,” Walker said.
All of their shuttles will have plexiglass between riders and the driver as well as opening some of the windows to ensure there is cross ventilation. If a rider doesn’t wear a mask, the driver has the authority to not put the shuttle in drive until everyone is wearing a mask, Walker said.
Walker said they are also considering having ambassadors around the various shuttle pickup locations to ensure people stay orderly and social distanced while waiting for the shuttle.
As for shared rides, some of the regulations are still up in the air.
“We have masks for all the drivers and have disposable masks for the guests that didn’t show up with them or lost them,” said Michael Van Vliet, president of Storm Mountain Express, a local and regional shuttle service based in Steamboat. “We sterilize between runs and at the end of the day as well.”
Van Vliet said that if they are required to operate at 25% capacity it could be tough for his business. But as of right now they are on track with last year and reservations look good.
“I am hoping for the best,” Van Vliet said. “I am preparing like we are going to have a good ski season.”
Van Vilet said that he felt like it will be next year before anything returns to normal.
“I think as a community, we are going to get through this, I do know that,” he said. “With that said, we are probably in for some more bumps.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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