As with every other public transportation system across the country, KATS has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its service relies on people being in a confined space with up to 20 strangers for up to an hour, KATS has had to make some changes to how it operates in order to ensure the safety of the drivers and passengers.
In March, when shutdown orders and recommendations were coming from local, state and federal governments, KATS began limiting the number of people who could ride the buses. Soon after, the service shut down all its fixed routes and went to an on-demand, Uber-style service.
Now, with restrictions being eased, KATS Public Transportation Manager Chris Campbell said steps are being taken that will hopefully lead to the service reinstituting its fixed route service next month.
CHANGES WERE MADE
The first thing KATS did in March was to rope off certain seats on all of its buses to only allow 10 people in the vehicles — nine passengers and the one driver. The buses typically hold 21 passengers.
KATS provided personal protection equipment for all its drivers, masks to any riders who wanted them and closed its routes for an hour at lunchtime to sanitize each vehicle.
The next round of changes took place about a week later when stricter recommendations were coming out at the national level. Campbell said KATS then shut down all fixed route services and began offering an on-demand service.
“You could call us up and get picked up at a bus stop of your choice, and we’d take you directly to where you wanted to go,” Campbell said. “That protected the drivers from the number of people entering, but we had to limit it to one trip per day to allow other folks the opportunity to use the service.”
Now that businesses and restaurants are starting to reopen and restrictions are being eased, Campbell said KATS is moving toward resuming fixed route service. Clear plastic barriers are being installed in all of the buses. Once that’s complete, Campbell said, the fixed route service will resume, hopefully sometime next month.
THE IMPACT ON RIDERSHIP
Public transportation ridership across the country is naturally down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the local level, KATS saw a 26% drop in ridership in March compared to a year ago; a 77% drop in April; and a 69% drop in May. Statewide figures are similar.
People are teleworking, many destinations were closed, doctor’s offices were utilizing telemedicine options, and many people were ordering food from grocery stores and restaurants online, which meant there was less demand for public transportation.
However, public transportation still had to operate in some manner, Campbell explained. There’s a segment of the population with no other means of transportation and must rely on buses to get to work, to the grocery store and to the doctor.
Earlier this year, Congress passed and President Trump signed the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act — a $2 trillion piece of legislation aimed at providing financial relief to businesses, governments and citizens in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Part of those funds went to transit authorities across the country, including ones in Kingsport ($1.2 million), Bristol ($455,000), and Johnson City ($2.67 million). It is a 100% federal grant that requires no local match.
“It was recognized early on when ridership dropped that much, (transit services) were losing so much revenue, they weren’t going to be able to operate their service. This (funding) will allow us to continue the services,” Campbell said. “It’ll sustain us for a good year and help really relieve the city from matching a grant itself.”