The headlines we have been seeing this fall have been describing a crisis in public transportation — proposals for service cutbacks, fare hikes, and layoffs in systems across the country. In DC, the proposals have included ending weekend service and turning off the Metro system at 9 pm. The Observer spoke with Elaine Bartoldson, the Director of the Eastern Panhandle Transit Authority, to get a sense of how the pandemic has affected the system that serves Berkeley and Jefferson Counties.
Elaine Bartoldson, Director of the Eastern Panhandle Transit Authority (EPTA), describes EPTA’s mission as “providing service for the workforce, individuals who have no other way to get around.” She summarized her perspective on the value of EPTA, saying, “without public transportation, things will stop for the people who use it. If we were not here, our riders really could not get around and it has an effect on others too, especially businesses who rely on workers who use us. One of the programs we launched in January this year was Get a Job, Get a Ride. Basically, if you are a first time rider with a new job, we’ll give you 20 round trips. That’s a month’s worth of travel to get you started. We have routes that are specifically designed to get people to the factory and warehouse facilities in Berkeley County and we time the buses to align with the shifts.”
Bartoldson described how EPTA works to attract riders. “We work with the human resources departments and businesses to promote ridership. We also go to job fairs and use social media to promote EPTA as an option for getting to work. We also visit the high schools, for example with the work exploration program at Berkeley County schools, and we show students how to use the bus, how to plan a trip, how to get a monthly pass. It’s about making it easy to do.” She also noted that technology has been a big help, making it easier for riders to navigate the system. “The Where’s My Bus app didn’t cost us anything and it makes it much easier for people to use the system. Riders can use Google Transit too, and all of our signs now have a QR code so riders can connect to a map and find out where they can go from a specific bus stop.”
“We find that our riders do come from all walks of life,” says Bartoldson. “We take nurses to work. We take people to the MARC train. We have people who move to the area because they can take a bus to shop and work. Since 2013 we’ve expanded from four routes to a dozen. We added a route to Inwood and Saturday service on several routes. It’s led by rider growth. In 2013 we provided 157,000 trips. In 2019 we provided 231,000 trips, and were projecting to hit 250,000 trips in 2020.”
As 2020 draws to a close after nine months of operating with pandemic restrictions, Bartoldson expects the trip number for the year to be closer to 150,000, a steep drop. “When the pandemic hit in the spring we did reduce our routes, with businesses shut down and our contract routes suspended.” Bartoldson recalled. “We knew we had to adjust, but in the beginning it was so uncertain how we might be operating. For many routes we were able to adjust to hit peak times and still serve the factory and hospital facilities. We also worked out an on-demand service and brought back some drivers for that. It was all about getting people to work.”
Bartoldson expects slow growth into 2022. “The elder population is not going out, but they will want to get back to being independent. But the businesses and hospitals are still running and people still need medical transport. For the finances, we’ll live within the budget, figuring out what we need to do for the riders and what expenses can wait.”
Bartoldson estimates that only 6 percent of EPTA’s revenue comes from the fareboxes, so the drop in ridership is not as much of a financial concern as it is with larger agencies. “We rely on federal transit dollars for most of our budget.” she noted. EPTA has been considered a small urban transit agency since the 2010 Census numbers reflected the local population growth that took place between 2000 and 2008 (prior to then it was considered a rural agency) and Bartoldson described the federal funding as a fixed formula, based on ridership. “It’s a one for one match so we need to come up with a local dollar for each federal dollar, up to a $1 million cap [on the federal money]. Our elected officials at the local and state levels have been very supportive, and we do get some funding from the local municipalities in Berkeley and Jefferson Counties that can count towards the match, but unlike some other transit agencies in WV we have no operating tax levy. Most of our match is driven by the contract service revenue that we can generate.”
Bartoldson walked through the various funding streams from the contract services. “We operate the shuttle on the Shepherd University campus, and run routes for MARC. We have a contract to provide non-emergency medical transport that is reimbursed by Medicare. For the past thirty years we operated the buses at the Harpers Ferry National Park, providing both drivers and mechanics. This year that contract went out to bid with a small business set-aside and a company from Staten Island [New York City] won the bid. It was devastating to lose that contract.” Bartoldson continued, remarking that, “we were looking at having to lay off those workers” until we were able to work out an arrangement with the new company to continue staffing the route as a subcontractor.
Bartoldson says she is optimistic for the future. “Right now it looks as if we can continue.” She added: “I’m so proud of our drivers, our dispatchers, our mechanics and all of our staff, coming to work every day. They are committed to getting our riders to where they need to get to. They are an amazing team.”Staff Contributor