Providing Essential Transportation While Planning for Recovery

A vital link in the economic well-being of a region, public transit agencies serve a wide range of residents across socio-economic backgrounds. Transit agencies across the nation saw ridership plummet in recent months as the number of people working from home soared, non-essential businesses temporarily closed, and riders avoided buses and subways out of fear of contracting COVID.

The pandemic’s impacts upon Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) have been far-reaching, even as the agency continues to serve the community’s needs while implementing steps to support the region’s economic recovery and looking toward the future. Read more

MST sustained a drastic loss in ridership on fixed route and public dial-a-ride services, with weekly passenger boardings down almost 80 percent at one point following Monterey County’s Shelter-in-Place order. Ridership has seen conservative increases since then, but the county’s unemployment rates (a record 20.2% in April, down to 14.5% in June) continue to impact boardings, as the majority of MST passengers use MST to travel to and from work.

The fiscal impact has been deep, as passenger fares dropped significantly, and the agency’s largest source of revenue — retail sales taxes generated within the county — diminished as non-essential businesses in hospitality, retail and other sectors temporarily closed. The estimated loss of retail sales tax revenue is estimated at upwards of $25 million for MST over a three-year period.

MST conducted a vulnerability assessment early on, and MBEP helped disseminate its community needs survey to targeted members to help determine how the transit agency could support the economic recovery of the community following the pandemic. Ultimately, that recovery program adopted many of the best practices and strategies that had been identified by FEMA and emerging from several disaster recovery case studies.

Driving MST’s COVID-19 recovery program is a “whole community” approach to recovery, explains MST General Manager/CEO Carl Sedoryk, where the district views its role as one of support to the entire community as it begins its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Findings from MST’s bilingual passenger survey show just how vital public transit services are for the community: 53% of riders used transit for work and 61% for shopping; 74% have access to internet by phone using the bus’s WiFi, 42% had no car available, and 52% did not have a driver’s license.

Statistics show that 67% of essential workers using public transit are non-white, and to bridge that disparity and ensure equitable service amid the pandemic, MST waived fares for nearly 400,000 passengers so that all residents could make essential trips to work, grocery shopping, and medical appointments. Fare collections resumed Aug. 1 with physical barriers on each bus physically separating passengers and drivers. The agency is working with its union to develop “Social Distancing Coaches” who will help balance passenger loads at major transit centers, teams to provide enhanced vehicle decontamination, and high-risk transport strike teams equipped to transport COVID-19-positive patients.

And through it all, MST has supported its community during a time of crisis, donating two surplus minibuses to Clinica de Salud del Valley de Salinas to provide mobile COVID testing to local ag workers, coordinating the delivery of 7,5000 masks to high-risk communities in East Salinas, Castroville, and South County cities, working with VA-DOD Center in Marina to coordinate out-of-county medical trips for veterans, helping provide thousands of wellness check-ins for elderly, disabled and other vulnerable community members, and worked with Meals on Wheels to expand meal delivery service to isolated seniors. In addition, the transit agency worked with the Monterey County Office of Education to provide 7,138 mobile Wi-Fi hotspot connections for distance learning in rural and underserved communities.