As Arkansas continues to roll back its prior restrictions on businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rock Region Metro is preparing for an increase in ridership as people return to the workplace.
Since March, Little Rock’s public transportation service has modified both its routes and its policies in response to COVID-19, such as the temporary suspension of certain bus routes.
Currently, nine routes are suspended and one has been modified due to the pandemic. Additionally, Metro Streetcar service continues to be cancelled until further notice.
Charles Frazier is the executive director of Rock Region Metro. He says another modification made due to the pandemic is the temporary suspension of its express routes that have a relatively low ridership and shifting those buses and vehicles to its busier routes instead.
"With only ten people being allowed on board, we were leaving people on the side of the street. And so now all of those resources are doubled up on the busy routes," Frazier said.
While ridership has decreased in Little Rock by around 50%, according to Frazier, that’s less than other metropolitan areas across the nation where ridership is down 80% to 90%. That’s a drop from 10,000 passenger trips on an average weekday to around 5,000.
"What that tells us is that there are several people in our community that have no other option than public transit. So it’s very important to us that we get our service back online and that we’re providing transportation for people to get to jobs, for people to get to medical appointments, for people to get to school eventually," Frazier said.
Rock Region Metro has also made policy changes concerning the safety of its passengers and drivers. Those changes, some of which were implemented back in March, include limiting ridership to 10 people per bus and making passengers enter the back of the bus in order to limit contact with drivers. That specific change has led to a loss in revenue as fares cannot be collected.
Frazier says the agency is losing around $5,000 per weekday on lost fares. However, $14.9 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act, is helping offset that loss. He says Rock Region Metro is spending that money on continuing its existing services and increasing safety.
"We are using that funding for all of the decontamination and sanitation strategies. So we’ve hired companies to help us fumigate all of the vehicles, all day every day. We bring in those same services to our various facilities," Frazier said.
The funding is also paying for the instillation of plastic shields for drivers to use as a sneeze guard when fare collection resumes. The CARES Act funding is also going towards a hazard pay program and temporary bonuses for frontline staff. According to Frazier, no drivers have contracted COVID-19 so far.
As ridership gradually goes up, Frazier says Rock Region Metro plans to add more vehicles to its busier routes as well as utilize some of its newer services, such as Metro Connect, an on-demand ride sharing service that picks up and drops off passengers in a designated service area.
Even when things return to a relative normal, Frazier says some of the changes Rock Region Metro has made due to the pandemic, such as the recently installed UV light decontamination systems on buses and sanitizer dispensers, are likely to stay on a permanent basis.