As transit agencies across the country decide how to move forward in the face of the novel coronavirus, VIA Metropolitan Transit president and CEO Jeff Arndt said San Antonio’s bus system has no plans to reduce service yet.

Ridership this week has dipped roughly 15 percent, Arndt said. Sunday numbers decreased by about 10 percent, Monday’s by 16 percent, and Tuesday’s by 24 percent. But that means a good portion of regular riders are still taking the bus.

“At least 80 percent of the people who normally ride the bus are still out there,” he said in a Thursday morning interview. “The people that typically ride the bus … are people in the service industry, in jobs without benefits that will help them through. And we have health care workers that need to get places to take care of people. We are a utility like water and electricity for people. There is a benefit [even] if ridership is down 15 or 20 percent.”

VIAtrans, the agency’s service for people with disabilities, has seen a 50 percent decrease in use but is still operating normally.

Austin’s transit agency Capital Metro made the decision Tuesday to switch many of its bus routes to Sunday hours, which are less frequent. Capital Metro is still running all its bus lines, but eliminated late Friday night service and all Saturday service on MetroRail. Arndt said he has a daily phone call with the heads of Austin, Dallas, and Houston transit agencies to understand how they proceed.

“[Dallas Area Rapid Transit] is doing what we’re doing – they’re running their normal schedule,” Arndt said. “They’re obviously doing contingency planning but running the regular schedule.”

“Houston METRO is actually adding service on busy lines to encourage social distancing. Everybody approaches it differently.”

VIA also has to consider what cutting down service would do for health concerns, Arndt said. Fewer buses means more riders per bus, which makes it harder for individuals to practice social distancing – the CDC recommendation of keeping six feet apart from other people.

Bus operators are concerned about their consistent exposure to the public, said Juan Amaya, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 694, which represents hourly employees at VIA. Bus drivers are one of the groups preapproved for COVID-19 testing in San Antonio.

“We’re very vulnerable,” he said. “We’re being exposed as operators to everyone coming in, the whole public coming in. I’m afraid that we might end up catching this virus.”

He said he appreciated VIA for equipping bus operators with preventative health tools by providing wipes and hand sanitizer for their work stations, though he wished they would also provide masks.

“There’s nothing that protects us,” he said. “[Riders] come in, they’re paying and they’re only a foot away from us.”

VIA started to increase its cleaning and disinfecting efforts earlier in March. Transit centers have people stationed to wipe down bus interiors, while the transit centers and buses themselves are disinfected at least once a day. More frequently-used routes see midday cleanings as well.

VIA is keeping different service reduction scenarios in mind, Arndt said. For example, if illness kept bus operators and mechanics at home or if San Antonio instituted a shelter-in-place mode like many California cities, it would not be able to maintain full service.

“Our thought is, if we ever reduce service, we’re likely to do something like a Saturday schedule because it’s easy to communicate,” he said.

If VIA does go to a reduced service level, Amaya said he has worked with the agency to ensure that hourly workers continue to get paid. Rachel Benavidez, VIA’s director of communications, confirmed that maintaining pay has been discussed, but no agreement had been reached.

“My main concern is to make sure everybody gets paid, whether they get sent home or whether they’re working,” Amaya said.

VIA does have a rainy day fund which allows the system to operate normally for about two months without generating new revenue, but the agency would have to strategize how to deploy those resources, Arndt said.

‘We have to look at how long that would be, and we don’t want to go from 100 percent to zero [service],” he said. “First we have to see what happens with sales tax [revenue], but every organization is in that boat.”

VIA gets about 75 percent of its revenue from sales tax. The agency gets a half-cent of sales tax revenue and about 8 to 10 percent of its revenue from fares. The City of San Antonio has a ballot measure planned for November to reallocate a one-eighth cent sales tax to VIA, but that is very far from Arndt’s mind right now, he said.

“VIA is an essential service, and we need to keep it going,” he said. “I am not even thinking about whether there is an election in November. What I’m focused on is keeping service for people who need it, protecting my employees as much as possible.”

The only point at which Arndt can imagine VIA stopping operations is when movement is restricted so severely, no one can make trips anyway, he said. Some transit agencies in the United States have stopped running; Green Bay Metro Transit in Green Bay, Wisconsin shut down its services on Monday while Detroit shut down its city bus system on Tuesday.

“At the point we are directed to shut down our service entirely, aside from medical trips, people won’t be making trips,” Arndt said. “I would surmise if they shut the system down, that would be the final shutdown.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.