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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

PARTA Protects Drivers As It Begins to Restore Bus Service

a photo of Daryl Frazier from PARTA
PARTA maintenance foreman Daryl Frazier developed a safety shield to protect the agency's drivers.

When the state issued orders for people to stay home, public transit had to adjust. The Portage Area Regional Transit Authority (PARTA) cut routes, stopped collecting fares, and since April first has been rotating its workforce a week on, a week off so it could keep them employed.

This week PARTA is working to bring services back as the economy starts to reopen. And its general manager Claudia Amrhein is taking on a new statewide role to advocate for public transit around Ohio.

CLAUDIA AMRHEIN: We’re at about 50% right now. So the rotating work groups allowed us to work only about half of our workforce one week and the other half the next and again, remain on paid furlough on those off weeks. We're going to ramp up to about two thirds service. So it's not an exact number, but we're ramping up service on our inner urban route, which will be the most heavily used that runs between Ravenna and Stow, the Target Plaza. Because we anticipate the need, as people return to work and start going out again to some of the businesses that are reopening, that would be the most likely line they would take.  Ultimately, we're looking at June 1, to get back to what would be close to 100%. But that's going to be dependent on any unknowns that might occur between now and then.­­­

SARAH TAYLOR: What do your ridership numbers look like right now as compared to pre-pandemic days?

CLAUDIA AMRHEIN: If we break it down into county service versus Kent State University campus service, campus is down 99%. So there's only about 60 students left on campus. We're still running one bus around in a loop so that those students can get off campus and line up with our services going around Portage County and into Summit County. Countywide we're about 50% down I would say on fixed route and our demand response, or our door to door service, is also down quite a bit although it is starting to pick up a little.

The other thing that I think people might not realize is that we're transporting so many of those essential workers to those jobs that everyone relies on now: the grocery workers, the nursing home workers, the hospital, those who are cleaning, those who are caring for people. Many of those folks are riding public transit. So we literally are providing lifeline services while we continue to provide dialysis transportation, all throughout Portage County. There are some medical appointments you just can't do remotely.

PARTA buses now have a safety shield protecting drivers. The transit agency's maintenance foreman, Daryl Frazier, worked with a local glass company to design them. "It's a good feeling to know that the work you're doing is helping to protect someone," Frazier said. He has worked for PARTA for 20 years.

SARAH TAYLOR: How are you keeping both drivers and riders safe? And have you had any infections amongst your driving staff?

CLAUDIA AMRHEIN: We, since 2009, with H1N1 have been using a hospital grade disinfectant to clean all of our buses. And so we were in a good position to ramp that up in response to COVID. Also, all PARTA’s buses and buildings already had hand sanitation dispensers installed when COVID-19 broke.

What we're doing now is we are doing a full deep cleaning of every bus every night. This means going in and spraying and allowing that disinfectant to dry and then spraying the driver's area again. And then we cycle that bus out for another two days, so it's not used.  

Our buildings also are being disinfected in that same manner. A group of our maintenance employees have shifted to third shift so that they can go through every office and every surface in both of our buildings and do that heavy, deep cleaning and spraying so that our inside workforce is safe and healthy. And to answer your question, no to this point, thank God we do not have a case.

SARAH TAYLOR: Are you testing drivers? Are you able to test them?

CLAUDIA AMRHEIN: We have no access to testing. We do have PPE and we have distributed N95 masks and gloves, and we've distributed the surgical facial masks as well and just this week made that mandatory for drivers to wear.Buses sometimes are equipped with plexiglass shields that kind of enclose the driver in that driver cabin. Typically you'll see that in large urban areas. The buses need to be constructed with that in mind, and PARTA’s and many other buses around Ohio and the systems that we have simply aren't constructed that way. But our maintenance team put their heads together and designed plexiglass shields for both our large buses and our smaller buses and worked with a local glass company to manufacture those all during the month of April. Every bus now is equipped where the driver has a plexiglass shield between him or herself and the passengers.

And also we discontinued fare collection as a way to stem the spread of germs and the virus through the use of cash and farebox interaction, touching.

SARAH TAYLOR: Financially, what impact does that have on your bottom line, to not be charging any fares?

CLAUDIA AMRHEIN: Sure. So fare is, it is a revenue source, but it's not one of the largest revenue sources. What we're really watching closely is our sales tax revenue. And that lags three months behind. So March receipts reflect December sales. So we had a good March, but April and May are in a race every year to be the worst month for our sales tax collection, because they reflect January and February. So we won't really know until summer, how the sales tax will be affected by the shutdowns that we're experiencing right now.

A photo of Claudia Amrhein
Credit PARTA
PARTA General Manager Claudia Amrhein has been elected president of the Ohio Public Transit Association. Another local transit leader, Dawn Distler, executive director of Akron Metro RTA has been elected secretary treasurer of OPTA.

As we learn more about how Ohio is going to gradually reopen, we want to be ready to do the transportation for those seniors and for all the folks who have always relied on us in this new and different way.

I actually see a lot of opportunity right now, rather than gloom and doom. I think this is a really great opportunity for transit to reimagine the role we're going to play in shared mobility solutions and in reinvigorating all of our local economies.

SARAH TAYLOR: You've just been elected president of the Ohio Public Transit Association. Congratulations. You do have a wider voice now to play a leading role in this reinvigoration, so what will be your plan as you take on this role?

CLAUDIA AMRHEIN: Well, right now I'm listening a lot. I'm listening to the governor and to [Ohio Department of Health Director] Dr. Acton. I'm listening to transit leaders around the state trying to get a good foothold as we transition. We also transitioned our executive director, she took a different position a few weeks ago, so we really are trying to keep all the plates in the air. But the message is going to be very clear. Transit is an economic force and a lifeline not only for our riders, but for the general public, because our bus drivers are heroically going out there every day and getting people to their jobs. We rely on the folks at the hospitals and the grocery stores and the other fundamental service providers. How can we do this without public transit in the future? I think of transit as it's a civil right. It's a human right. And it's something that we have to preserve for everyone.

A Northeast Ohio native, Sarah Taylor graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where she worked at her first NPR station, WMUB. She began her professional career at WCKY-AM in Cincinnati and spent two decades in television news, the bulk of them at WKBN in Youngstown (as Sarah Eisler). For the past three years, Sarah has taught a variety of courses in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree. Sarah and her husband Scott, have two children. They live in Tallmadge.