Wednesday, August 17, 2022

WATA sees significant drop in ridership during pandemic

The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority saw an eight percent decrease in total ridership last year but saw a 20 percent increase in paratransit riders. (WYDaily/File photo)
(WYDaily/File photo)

The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority has continued to provide limited operations for residents throughout the pandemic, but the past few months have also seen a significant decrease in ridership.

WATA has altered its operations and ridership since March to protect the health and safety of passengers. The alterations include a face mask requirement for passengers, separated seating to promote social distancing and passenger fares have been waived for the foreseeable future.

The buses also now limit capacity at 75 percent and operations have reduced hours, including a full closure on Sunday to clean and sanitize the vehicles. 

As a result ridership has gone down about 41 percent since March, said John Moore, WATA deputy director. While the numbers have started to increase slightly, the drop in ridership is still more significant than ever.

“I think that this is a very unique year in many different ways,” said Michele Canty, spokeswoman for WATA. “So we are going to be looking at [ridership numbers] on its own and look historically at where we’ve been.”

Summer is usually an extremely busy time of year for WATA operations because there are so many people coming for festivals, events and other tourist attractions. But now that area events are no longer happening, there are far fewer people using the transit system.

Canty said ridership numbers in a typical year would help the organization look at a number of different aspects, such as operation extensions and route frequency. But since the pandemic has caused operations to be so different, ridership numbers in the past few months aren’t necessarily a reliable tool.

“This has been completely different than anything we’ve anticipated,” she said. “I don’t know if we will be using ridership this year to make any key decisions.”

Canty said the hope is that ridership will rebound once operations get back to normal.

WATA has started forming a loose plan for resuming normal operations. The current plan is to continue the modified operations and fee suspension until October, at which point WATA plans to potentially resume normal operations depending on the situation in Virginia.

The organization has received $216,075 in grants from the state to offset the revenue lost from removing transportation fare. WATA also received $5,777,110 through the federal CARES act, which will be used to support operations over the next few years.

“I think the grants are critical to make sure we can continue operations safely and project our drives,” she said. “We’re not at the brink or anything but the funding we receive is vital to continue operations.”

WATA is also looking at ways it can continue to improve its sanitizing and cleaning processes. The organization currently contracts an outside business to perform sanitizing tasks which uses various microbial cleaning machines. Canty said WATA has started looking at how to get their own cleaning machines to help make the buses safer and operations move more efficiently. 

Zach Trogdon, WATA’s executive director, said many passengers are looking out for themselves and following guidance to wear facemasks and observe social distancing.

“It shows the character of our community and how we are committed to getting through this together,” he wrote in an email.

Canty said WATA will continue to monitor and update its practices moving forward but there isn’t a set guideline for what the future will hold. 

“I think WATA is really just trying to provide a service and do that as safely as possible,” she said. “It’s vital to ride out the storm because we don’t know how long it will last.”

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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