Coronavirus: RTA bus ridership declines during pandemic

Bus ridership in the Dayton region plummeted after citizens dramatically altered their daily routines in response to Gov. Mike DeWine’s “stay-at-home” order, which is aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19.

The Greater Dayton RTA saw a 52% decrease in bus riders in the week ending April 4, which is the third consecutive week of large and historic declines. With fewer people riding the bus, the company lost about $173,000 in March, officials said.

But the transit agency says falling ridership is a good sign, because it means that people are following the state’s stay-at-home order and are limiting trips to try to avoid the spread of infection.

“Right now, that’s the least of our worries, because we’re a lot more worried about getting the essential workers to work and keeping everyone as healthy as we can,” said Bob Ruzinsky, deputy CEO of the Greater Dayton RTA. “Less riders is good during this period.”

RTA has not modified its services during the crisis and currently has no plans to make changes, officials say, but the pandemic is going to poke a hole in its budget, requiring some “belt-tightening.”

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Between March 29 and April 4, about 90,930 people took a ride on an RTA bus.

That is down from about 188,900 riders during the same period in 2019.

Compared to the prior year, ridership fell about 45% in the week ending March 28 and dropped roughly 37% in the week ending March 21.

As RTA’s ridership declines, so do passenger fares, which account for 14% of the transit agency’s budget.

The bigger economic concern is sales tax revenue, which is expected to take a major hit because large parts of the economy have been shut down.

Sales taxes accounted for 57% of the RTA’s 2019 budget of $66.6 million.

Montgomery County, which heavily relies on sales tax, is planning to cut nearly $18 million from its budget because of projected revenue declines.

Like many other organizations, the RTA will have to figure out ways to “tighten its belt” and balance its books to account for revenue losses, and the agency hopes to receive some federal funding relief, Ruzinsky said.

The community and customers have been extremely appreciative of RTA drivers, who remained committed to taking people to where they need to go during extraordinary times, he said.

The RTA has 340 bus drivers, and driver attendance is at 97% right now, which is highest level in years, he said.

“Sometimes, a crisis brings out the best in everyone,” Ruzinsky said. “Our staff certainly have stepped up.”

These are historic ridership declines for a public transportation agency that dates back to 1972, officials say.

But this result was entirely predictable, officials say, because residents are supposed to shelter-in-place except for essential trips, such as for work, grocery shopping, medical appointments and other vital needs.

During normal times, more than 60% of RTA customers catch the bus to get to jobs.

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Bus drivers report that most of their riders right now are making work-related trips, though many others need transport to the grocery store or pharmacy, agency officials said.

Christal Powell, 43, who lives in East Dayton, rides the bus every day, usually multiple times, to get groceries, visit friends and attend appointments.

These days, she tends to be one of the only people on the bus. Until the coronavirus crisis, they used to be filled.

“I think people are scared,” she said. “Though I thank God that Montgomery County is not one of the hardest-hit places — that’s a blessing.”

Powell said she feels comfortable and safe riding the bus, even though there is an exposure risk to being in tight spaces, in the presence of sick people.

Powell said the RTA keeps its buses very clean, and she thinks ridership will fully rebound once the stay-at-home order is lifted.

“ I can’t wait for that,” she said.

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Riding RTA buses is as safe as it can be because they are cleaned and sanitized frequently, and riders are being asked to follow social distancing policies and wear masks, said Ruzinsky, the agency’s deputy CEO.

Ridership declines mean there’s more room for customers to spread out and maintain a healthy distance from each other, he said.

The RTA has not changed services and schedules in response to the outbreak.

The transit agency says essential workers and other clients rely on its buses and it wants to avoid crowding, which could happen if fewer vehicles were on the road.

At peak times, the RTA runs about 110 large buses each day, and about 50 smaller, door-to-door buses.

Larry Weaver, 51, of Dayton, said he catches the bus to get to and from his job at a convenience store in Kettering, as well as for shopping and banking needs.

Weaver said generally he feels safe riding the bus during this crisis, but he’s glad he has a mask and that social distancing is being recommended and followed.

Weaver said there’s no way to know who rode the bus before climbing aboard, and it’s certainly possible some sick people were passengers, especially because some routes stop at hospitals.

But he says the RTA is taking precautions and cleans the buses regularly at the downtown hub.

“They are doing the best they can,” he said.

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Weaver said RTA buses used to be packed midday and half filled during the evening.

But now, midday buses are half filled, and night-time buses are mostly empty.

“I am grateful they are keeping it open,” he said, adding that otherwise, he would have to bike to work, take a cab or figure something else out.

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