Add public transit to the list of things Americans took for granted before COVID-19. In the months since congregating indoors became a public health threat, many who built their daily routines around this affordable, climate-friendly public service have felt compelled to stay away from it.
Essential workers from the health-care, food and other industries don’t all have the ability to opt out, nor do citizens with no other way to get to the groceries or medicine they need. Keeping passengers safe is just one strand in the unprecedented web of challenges now facing transportation directors, and the problems that lie ahead may well be the most daunting of all.
Carl Sedoryk, CEO of the Monterey-Salinas Transit District, leads a system that serves a fifth of the California coast, from Paso Robles to San Jose. MST’s service area is almost 300 square miles. In the past, it has carried over 4 million passengers a year.
In order to keep on top of service needs during the pandemic, Sedoryk says that he and his staff have found it necessary to monitor and adjust day by day, hour by hour, “almost trip by trip.”
“It’s a huge amount of work and we’re exhausted, but no one’s complaining,” he says. “Others in our community don’t have jobs and there’s satisfaction in knowing we’re here to serve them.”
Prepared, But Not for This
Wildfires, earthquakes and floods are all potential risks for Sedoryk’s region and because of this, MST developed a business continuity plan five years ago. MST also is part of the county’s emergency services team and may be called on to transport citizens out of a danger zone or take first responders into it.
Over the years, Sedoryk and his team met regularly and ran tabletop exercises to consider the best responses to natural disasters, civil disturbances or mass casualty events. “In many ways, we were remarkably prepared but in some areas, we were less prepared,” he says.
The continuity plan even included a section on pandemic response, but it did not anticipate an extended public health emergency. “A disaster like a fire has a definable beginning, middle and end — it starts, it rages, it gets put out and then you start recovering,” says Sedoryk. “This thing is just never ending.”
When the first COVID-19 fatality was recorded in San Jose, a city to which MST travels, Sedoryk gathered his executive team and implemented the first step of the emergency plan, creating an emergency operations center and shifting responsibilities among managers to improve resilience. MST also acquired a stock of personal protective equipment. Ever since a hepatitis outbreak in the region four years ago, the agency had been disinfecting buses and had the supplies and expertise to continue this practice.
“We were less prepared for the run on the market for cleaners, masks and supplies,” says Sedoryk. “We had to scramble for a couple of months, like everyone else, to get our supply chain back in order.”
A sanitizer dispenser on a bus. (Photo: MST)
Empty Buses and Fareboxes
Through the month of April, ridership plummeted as much as 80 percent. Service was cut from 1,100 trips per day to 500. Bus occupancy was restricted to ensure physical distancing could be maintained and passengers were required to wear masks.
“We didn’t put a hard stop on boarding,” Sedoryk says. “Especially in Monterey, people travel in family units and we didn’t want to separate a mother from a child or force members of the same household to sit six feet apart.”
So far, California weather has allowed drivers to keep bus windows open. The manufacturers of MST’s buses claim this results in complete air exchange every two minutes.
The agency provided its drivers with masks, goggles and face shields. “We stopped collecting fares and instituted rear door boarding, to keep passengers from congregating at the front of the bus and potentially exposing the driver,” says Sedoryk.
Over time, passengers began to return. Sedoryk estimates that about 60 percent are back, and he has restored service to 70 percent of what it was before the pandemic, about 740 buses. Demand is monitored constantly, and new vehicles are added if drivers report that buses are getting crowded.
Video cameras on buses allow managers to pay attention to whether drivers are using their PPE properly and ensure that passengers follow public health guidelines. “Over time, fatigue sets in and some stop paying attention,” says Sedoryk. “We continue to encourage them to stay up to speed, but this isn’t the time to be punitive.”
MST invested half a million dollars in plastic shields at the front of buses to further protect drivers, and has applied to be reimbursed by FEMA. At the beginning of August, it began to collect fares again, for the first time since March 18.
Farms in MST's service area are critical to the nation's food supply. The district donated buses to be converted to mobile COVID-19 testing labs that could be brought to work sites. (Photo: Grower-Shipper Association of Central California)
Finding New Ways to Serve the Community
While public demand for transportation services waned, Sedoryk and his team began to look for other ways to use their resources to support the community. “As a public service provider, you don’t restore your service just to restore your service, you try to identify where you can accomplish the most good,” he says.
MST reached out to stakeholders in its service zone — the agriculture and hospitality industries, military bases, community colleges, school districts and health-care providers and the groups that represent them to find out what they needed. “Based on what we were hearing, we started doing a number of things,” says Sedoryk.
Unemployment in the county had gone from 3.5 percent to 20 percent, causing a tenfold increase in persons with food insecurity. Over the summer, MST's drivers and vehicles that would have otherwise been idle helped Meals on Wheels in Salinas Valley to deliver 8,000 meals to seniors and persons with disabilities.
Students living in agricultural communities were having difficulty keeping up with remote learning mandates. Many had been provided Chromebooks by the state, but they didn’t have Internet access. In response, MST parked its Wi-Fi-enabled commuter buses in rural areas to provide hot spots for them.
“We’d set them up in parking lots, and people could come in their cars and piggyback on our signal,” says Sedoryk. “We were out there every day during the end of the school year, and we’re ramping it up again as the new school year is starting.”
MST donated a vehicle it no longer needed to a veterans group who used it to take homeless veterans to food, medical services and shelter. The transit agency gave another vehicle to a nonprofit that trains at-risk youth to work in the hospitality industry. Upon discovering that drivers who take disabled veterans to medical appointments had stopped volunteering because they were old, disabled and at high risk of illness, MST found CARES Act funds to take over this service.
To support the local agriculture industry, which is critical to the national food supply, MST provided two buses to be converted into mobile COVID-19 testing facilities, to get testing capability out to the workers in the fields. It offered additional support by arranging for 7,500 masks received from the federal government to be distributed to families by organizations serving farmworker communities.
Safety messaging and distanced passengers. (Photo: MST)
MST also looked at data to understand how transportation needs had changed. “We used the Slido app (an online survey tool) that you see at conferences to survey our passengers and employees and to resurvey community stakeholders,” says Sedoryk.
Community colleges have not yet resumed in-person classes. The people going back to work are in tourist-serving industries such as restaurants and hotels, and the shipping and packing facilities of the Salinas Valley. “We’re focusing our services there for now,” says Sedoryk.
Service to Santa Clara is currently discontinued due to lack of demand. An additional factor at play is the complications from inconsistent health guidelines. The Santa Clara health officer does not want riders to touch the tape on the bus wall to request a stop, but to call out “next stop.”
“I’d rather have people press the button and use the hand sanitizer we have on the bus,” says Sedoryk. “In places like Japan and Korea, they discourage talking at all because it spreads aerosol whether you’re wearing a mask or not.”
Sedoryk recognizes that this is a “granular” problem, but it only adds to the difficulty of doing his job when there is not a coordinated national response to the pandemic. “WHO information contradicts CDC information, which contradicts state health officer information, which contradicts county health officer operation,” he says.
While a typical government agency operates in one location, public transit operations move through multiple locations, across different jurisdictions. MST serves Santa Clara, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties, all of which have different rules. “All you can do is the best you can do, right?” says Sedoryk.
Breaking ground for a new operations and maintenance facility. (Photo: MST)
Window Opens for Capital Projects
Despite challenges, MST is making progress. Sedoryk says that if it weren’t for the pandemic and the loss of ridership, it would be having a banner year.
The agency has broken ground on a new bus operations and maintenance facility, financed through a credit program created under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). The district’s 35-year loan could be at a rate as low as 0.75 percent, with no payments for the first five years.
In this case, the pandemic made Sedoryk’s life easier. “Normally, it would require several trips to Washington to get this financing, but we were able to do this via virtual conferencing and have people from all over the country involved," he says.
MST also has been selected as the first transportation district in the state to implement a new program from CalTrans, called the California Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP). Sedoryk describes this as “an open loop contactless credit card payment system.” The goal is to to have a fee-less VISA card that could be used to pay fares on any transit system in the state. Because of the pandemic, the state has decided to accelerate development and deployment.
As with the TIFIA loan, Sedoryk has been able to collaborate on this work with partners in far-flung locations thanks to Web conferencing. “We have people from Sacramento, Toronto, Melbourne and New York on these calls,” he says.
There’s a long-range social equity aspect to all this, according to Sedoryk. Many low-income residents don’t have bank accounts, which complicates the process of accessing benefits such as food assistance and creates a paperwork burden on both sides. Eventually, such funds could be sent to the card account and the card could be used for purposes such as purchasing groceries.
Wi-Fi-enabled commuter buses were parked in communities where students did not have Internet access, to help them manage remote learning assignments. (Photo: MST)
Cash Flow Is a Problem
As the pandemic crisis heads into the fall, transit systems are in financial freefall around the country. Big city systems, such as New York City and San Francisco, have seen ridership plummet 90 percent. That has cut into revenue just as states have reduced subsidies in an effort to trim budgets. The result: Transit agencies across the country are projected to rack up close to $40 billion in budget shortfalls, dwarfing the $2 billion loss inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis, according to The New York Times.
MST does not have financial support from local sales taxes, and depends on state sales taxes along with state and federal fuel taxes and farebox revenues to pay for its operations. Partnerships with community colleges, universities, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and military bases also help.
But like so many other sources of revenue during the pandemic, partnership funding has disappeared. “The aquarium and the universities and the community colleges and the bases are all closed,” he says. “We’re not getting any money from there.”
Thanks to CARES Act funding, Sedoryk is confident he can “sail” through the end of this fiscal year. But depending on the situation at the end of the calendar year, he may be forced to look at reductions in force and restructuring of services.
So far, he’s been able to avoid layoffs and has been particularly attentive to keeping his drivers on the payroll — he doesn’t want them taking jobs elsewhere, leaving him short-handed if the recovery gains steam. The California transit association has said that CARES Act funding is $3.1 billion short of what the state needs, with major urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco most at risk. At this point, it’s uncertain what another federal stimulus package might bring.
“If nothing happens there, and nothing happens in Sacramento, there will be a $3.1 billion contraction in our industry and it will affect different localities differently,” he says. “It really depends on their local economies and local funding streams.”
For now, he’s watching state sales tax revenue, and there aren’t enough data points yet for him to see a trend. He’ll know more by the end of the year, and if relief from Congress or the state could be in sight.
“The fares that passengers pay cover about 20 percent of our costs, and the rest is picked up by a variety of state and federal funding sources,” says Sedoryk. “But there’s only so much a person is going to be able to pay.”
It’s too early to know what the numbers will be, but at some point, MST, like other transit providers around the country, may have to reconsider the level of service that it is able to provide with the cash flow available to it.
The average taxpayer may not think much about the large section of the population that can’t afford a car, or who are too old or disabled to drive, Sedoryk says. “There’s a lot of noise to filter through to get that message out, especially these days.”
Strength, Stamina and Flexibility
For now, MST’s attention is on service and safety. The agency has 250 workers; there was no confirmed COVID-19 case among them until recently and the employee in question had not had contact with passengers or the general public. The county health officer has not identified any instances where a member of the public contracted COVID-19 while an MST passenger.
Sedoryk had six district employees go through the contact tracing training developed by Johns Hopkins University. “Our county is overwhelmed — it’s a small rural county and they weren’t set up to handle this type of emergency,” he says. “We decided to offer our employees help to get them a head start on some of these issues.”
The pandemic has led to greatly improved relationships with the local union, in contrast to the complaints and lawsuits brought against leaders of transit districts in other parts of the country by union members who feel they have been put in danger.
Sedoryk and the local union president have been meeting daily. “This has forced us to not just talk about problems, but to get to know each other as people and develop a relationship — that’s helped out a lot.”
MST’s response to the pandemic has changed how the community perceives it, particularly those who work in agriculture. “They see us providing buses to turn into mobile COVID-19 labs — not as a stodgy, bureaucratic entitlement program but as a solution that they need.”
Better relationships within and without the organization and an enhanced reputation for service help offset the stress caused by conditions and risks that shift day to day, hour by hour. Sedoryk’s volunteer work as a martial arts instructor, on hold for the time being, has also served him well, he believes.
“We focus on strength, stamina and flexibility,” he says. “Those are good attributes for a martial artist, and they are excellent attributes for an organization — you’ve got to be financially strong, flexible, and you’ve got to be in it for the long haul.”