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Eau Claire Transit Use Still Well Below Pre-Pandemic Levels

Ridership dropped by 50 percent last year as stay-at-home orders and COVID-19 concerns kept many people off public transit. Even as the economy begins to reopen, ridership remains still down 45.5 percent.

(TNS) — Between the pre-pandemic start of 2020, government safer-at-home orders issued when the coronavirus arrived in the state and then people adjusting to life during the COVID-19 era, ridership on Eau Claire city buses ended up being down by 50 percent last year.

Eau Claire Transit reports numbers have rebounded somewhat for the start of this year, but are still 45.5 percent below the amount of riders seen before the pandemic.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation for us in the industry," city Transit Manager Tom Wagener said about the large drop in passengers.

From January through March, 106,248 people boarded city buses compared to 194,835 during the first quarter of 2020, including the mid-March start of the pandemic.

It's a deep cut in ridership, but improved from last year when there were two months when the government urged people to stay home and only travel for essential purposes.

The 452,432 passengers on city buses last year was about half the 911,440 who rode in 2019, according to Eau Claire Transit's year-end report.

Buses have been running with seats blocked off as a precaution against spreading germs — allowing only 25 percent capacity at the start of the pandemic, later rising and staying at 50 percent. But Wagener said there haven't been reports of not enough seats for those who have been riding the bus.

From one-time riders to frequent bus users, every category of paying customers were down in 2020. The only group of passengers growing was those riding for free, which went up nearly 15-fold due to fares being suspended from mid-March until early October to reduce the chances of germs spreading when passengers give payments to drivers.

A major user of Eau Claire Transit, UW-Eau Claire, had times when classes were taught entirely online last year, greatly lowering use of city buses that ferried students between campus and their homes. Routes focused on UW-Eau Claire were even temporarily suspended last spring when the pandemic first hit and campus closed.

University student use of the bus system dropped 70 percent — falling from 368,793 rides in 2019 down to 109,468 last year.

And for the start of 2021, UW-Eau Claire student use of city buses has been about half of what it normally is, due in part to classes still being split between online instruction and classrooms.

During the current spring semester, only 37 percent of classes have been conducted entirely in the classroom while 33 percent are being taught entirely online, according to the university. The remaining 30 percent have been hybrid classes using a mix of virtual and classroom instruction.

Lower Fares, Budget Help Elsewhere

Fares make up a minority share of the transit system's budget — state and federal subsidies combined are the largest portion — but remain an important source of revenue.

Several months of not collecting bus fares last year and the dip in ridership did raise worries of a budget shortfall, Wagener said.

Largely due to taking in less in fares, Eau Claire Transit's revenues came in $1 million lower than the $6 million budgeted in 2020.

However, that was almost entirely offset by cost savings.

Use of paratransit — an on-demand service that provides subsidized rides in smaller vehicles to people with mobility problems — was way down last year.

Eau Claire Transit spent just under half of the $1.39 million budgeted for paratransit rides due to lower demand from riders.

And even though Eau Claire's fleet of buses stuck to their schedules throughout last year, the city saw lower diesel costs for them.

Though budgeted for $381,500, the city only spent about $174,000 on diesel fuel for buses. Wagener attributes the savings to the fleet continuing to use newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles as well as lower diesel costs.

While that brought 2020's budget into balance, there's still the ongoing worry that Eau Claire Transit and other bus services have about how long it will take riders to return to pre-pandemic numbers.

"The federal government has certainly stepped up to allay those fears by providing those additional monies," Wagener said.

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum released reports last month about falling bus ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic and federal money that will fill holes left by lost fare revenue. The numerous federal coronavirus relief packages are providing more than $400 million in aid to transit systems throughout the state with Eau Claire's share being about $7.8 million, according to the report.

There's no deadline for using federal money so it can be spread out over multiple years to cover shortfalls, Wagener said. The aid issued for COVID-19 is restricted to be used only for operating costs, not for new buses or other capital spending.

However, Wagener noted that regular federal aid that Eau Claire Transit gets is more flexible, so that money could be redirected from operational costs to helping to pay for the new downtown transfer center building project.

Full Return Unknown

When full ridership will return to city buses in Eau Claire and elsewhere is yet to be seen.

"Transit systems across the country are not sure what it's going to take to get people back to using public transit," Wagner said.

The pandemic spurred more employees to work from home, reducing their use of the bus to get to work. Many service-sector employees — a key group of bus riders — had their work cut during the pandemic and businesses such as restaurants are still recovering, Wagener noted.

"It's going to certainly take time as businesses rebound and more hiring is done and those types of things happen," he said.

City Councilman Jeremy Gragert, who serves on Eau Claire's Transit Commission, said usual bus riders may have adopted other means of transportation — walking, biking or buying their own car — during the pandemic and could be slow to return to buses.

"Sometimes those habits stick," he said.

Mark Quam, president of local advocacy group Chippewa Valley Transit Alliance, expects it will likely take another year for riders to return to levels seen before.

"I still feel there are a lot of people that are not comfortable getting back on the bus," he said.

We're still in uncharted territory, Quam added, and factors such as progress in vaccinating the local population and variants of the virus that challenge the area's return to normal will factor into people's decisions to take public transit.

For those who are concerned about the safety of taking buses, Wagener and Gragert noted there have been no reports of COVID-19 outbreaks stemming from them here or elsewhere.

"Public transit — the way we've operated it in Eau Claire and across the country — is very safe," Gragert said.

(c)2021 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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