Ridership on TriMet buses and trains plummeted last year when the pandemic took hold and changed people’s lives almost overnight. Trips on buses and on MAX trains in the Portland area dropped by about two thirds in just a few weeks. But more than a year later, even though fewer people are working from home and vaccine doses are plentiful, ridership has barely budged. It is still less than half of what it was pre-pandemic.
JC Vannatta is executive director of public affairs at TriMet. He told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” that capacity limits on buses and trains is one reason ridership remains low. He also said he doesn’t expect a dramatic increase anytime soon.
“It will be a slow journey for us. Our modeling shows that we won’t reach pre-pandemic levels until 2025, somewhere in there,” Vannatta said.
According to Vannatta, TriMet has seen a slight uptick in riders since fans have been allowed to attend Timbers, Thorns and Blazers games. The agency is very focused on what it calls “ridership recovery.”
“It’s everything from marketing campaigns to re-familiarizing people with our system and how to pay fares and what to do. We’re also looking at our customer experience — announcements on board, service tweaks that we need to make, cleanliness and security,” Vannatta explained. “We want to make a good first impression so that when someone comes back and they’re headed to their job or they’re going to that Timbers Game, that we give them a positive experience ... because that’s going to be key to keeping them coming back.”
Despite the financial losses associated with a dramatic drop in ridership, TriMet received $185 million in federal money through the CARES Act. Vannatta said the funds made it possible for the agency to stick to its commitment not to lay off or furlough any workers and helped to cover additional costs associated with the pandemic.
“We have been cleaning and sanitizing roughly every four hours our MAX and buses. We hired 130 people on to do that cleaning and sanitizing and that roughly added about $10 million dollars to our budget,” Vannatta said.
It’s unclear if TriMet will continue its rigorous cleaning practices as the pandemic wanes and more scientific evidence shows that people are unlikely to contract COVID-19 through surface contact alone.
Even with all the sanitizing, on-board mask dispensers, increased ventilation and other precautions, Vannatta acknowledged that some people will be still be hesitant to return to their pre-pandemic public transportation habits.
“We’re all in this together and we’ll get through it, and whenever they’re ready, we’re ready,” he said.
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