By Madeleine Graham
As COVID-19 took hold in Genesee County with three Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) drivers testing positive, MTA suspended operations April 2.
The suspended vehicles were for Ride to Wellness and the bus system, which included fixed routes and regional routes. This left many of the vulnerable in limbo to obtain rides elsewhere.
Fortunately, many volunteers were able to service senior apartments in a cooperative effort to supply food. Getting to the grocery store remained an obstacle for many, however.
The fixed routes buses and a soft roll out of Ride to Wellness began May 18. Ride to Wellness for Department of Human Services (DHS) clients and regional route buses both are expected to resume service June 1.
MTA Your Ride, designated an essential service, has continued to operate during the pandemic, with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used and mandatory sterilization of the vehicles.
In the face of revenue losses from this sequence of events, MTA received a $19 million grant under “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, one of the COVID relief programs from the federal government. The grant was announced by U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee earlier this month.
The grant will help make up for the loss of revenue the MTA has been experiencing, “especially providing free transportation since this happened — and who knows how much more into the foreseeable next year or two,” according to Ed Benning, CEO of the MTA.
Ridership is down 60 to 70 percent because plants and businesses are closed, which impacts the operations. Fixed routes normally see 10,000 to 13,000 passengers, but Monday, May 18, saw approximately 2000 riders. It is increasing slowly, with ridership up to 3,000 as of Thursday, May 21, and growing about a 1,000 a day, Benning said.
The annual MTA budget is normally at $31 million, with revenue coming from grants, state operating funds, and a millage which generates about $11 million annually– about 30 to 50 percent of the budget, he explained.
The CARES Act funding “is intended to provide us with funds to keep our employees working, even though our ridership is not what it was at one time,” Benning said.
It provides money to pay for all the supplies, equipment, and cleaning that the MTA staff must do because of COVID-19.
“For example, we will be buying a new contactless fare system for operation and passengers will run a card,” Benning said. “There will no longer be paper transfers. We will be going away from a paper pass system.”
There will be new self-loading docking stations for wheel chairs, two per bus, and barriers have been purchased to keep drivers safe while they are working, he added.
MTA will be transporting passengers to testing sites as “DHS has asked us to do,” Benning said. However, MTA will not transport previously diagnosed positive COVID-19 passengers.
Medical technicians are testing drivers on a daily basis–a further expense, he noted. And the funds are intended to offset reduced fares and as well as free transportation, which ends June 1.
Personal Protective supplies have increased such as masks, which are up between 60,000 and 70,000, and the services of medical technicians have had to be used as part of the COVID response.
Barriers are in place, which the MTA built in-house, Benning said. Plastic barriers separate the drivers and passengers in all Ride to Wellness vehicles.
Gloves and masks will continue to be worn beyond June 1. It is expected passengers will be able to load on the front of the bus rather than the rear door as they have been during the modifications. Regional routes and Department of Human Services services of MTA Ride to Wellness will fully be operating as of June 1.
“The money (CARES Act grant) will run out, I would anticipate, in the next 18 to 20 months,” Benning said.
A slow roll out of Ride to Wellness will not be fully operational until June 1, when Department of Human Services riders will be able to call for a ride. The Ride to Wellness offers rides to the pharmacy, doctors and grocery stores. It services veterans, seniors and the disabled.
The current average under the COVID limitations has been running about 400 passengers a day, compared to 3,500 and 4,000 pre-COVID, Benning said.
He said as of May 26, when doctor and dentist offices open and as of May 29, when retailers are expected to be back in service, the MTA will see an increase in the operation of Ride to Wellness and other MTA services.
The actual dollar figure as all the expenditures have mounted up is not currently available–the MTA is still working on that, Benning said.
“It is kind of like an open register, with all the preparations with the new contactless system, the new wheel chair lock down stations, PPE, and other measures taken–all being necessary expenditures,” he said.
The MTA millage is up for renewal in August and is not an increase.
Benning said MTA of Flint is the leader in the country for specialized services, and is recognized as the lead agency in the country for services for medical care.
There has been a great concern about how mass transit services would manage social distancing, and MTA of Flint has been a leader in the nation, he asserted.
EVM Staff Writer Madeleine Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.