COVID-19 in Erie: Erie reduces public bus service, depriving some of a vital lifeline

Erie Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses (Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

ERIE, Pa. — For college student Shayma Musa, Erie’s public transit system is a lifeline.

For the last four years, Musa has taken a fixed-route Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority  bus at least twice a day, Monday through Friday, from downtown Erie to Edinboro University.

“Without it I don’t think I would have been able to go to a school so far away just because I didn’t have a car,” Musa told the Capital-Star, Monday. “So it’s allowed me to stay connected on campus, and basically, get an education.”

But in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, county transportation officials have reduced service. Officials say they don’t like it, but they don’t have any choice.

“The EMTA right now is practicing the best safety practices we can perform while providing an essential service to Erie County,” the system’s CEO, Jeremy Peterson told the Capital-Star. “So, unfortunately, that has left us faced with a reduction of routes due to a sharp reduction in ridership.”

The EMTA plays a vital role in the life of Erie County. Before the pandemic, the system served 8,000 to 10,000 riders every day.

But with as the pandemic spread, ridership decreased daily, Peterson told the Capital-Star. “For right now, we’re averaging anywhere between 1,500 to 2,500 rides per day, which is close to an 80 percent decrease in ridership.”

Reduction in ridership is mainly due to the social distancing practices Erieites have been urged to follow by local officials. County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper issued a stay-at-home order that went into effect Mar. 25. 

In response, the county enacted a three-tier response.

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Tier one of EMTA’s plan includes route changes, which went into effect Mar. 23. Until further notice fixed-route buses will be running on the Saturday schedule during weekday operations. Fixed-route buses are no longer operating on weekends. 

“We have to understand there’s a different paradigm to just  bus service,” Peterson added. “We also have what we call a LIFT, or paratransit service that we provide service to folks through the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) demographics, folks that … aren’t able to take a fixed-route.” 

Under the plan, “it’s business as usual for LIFT Monday through Friday,” Peterson said. “And then they’ll enforce medical only trips for Saturday and Sunday.”

The only changes to EMTA service under tier two would be that all fixed-route buses stop running at 7 p.m.

“We would move to the next step in this tier process as information is divulged to us, as we look at our ridership numbers, as we heed warning from the the governor, PenDOT, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the CDC, or obviously the county health department,” Peterson told the Capital-Star.

The third tier “would be of an emergent nature.” In this step, all EMTA routes would be stopped until further notice. 

“EMTA would still focus on emergency operations,” in this tier, Peterson said. In Erie County, the transit authority is a part of many emergency plans such as evacuations. To these causes, their services will still be available. 

Disruption to service in the name of public health is a double-edged sword, Musa, a soon-to-be graduate of Edinboro’s biology and pre-physicians assistant program, told the Capital-Star. 

“You don’t want to spread this virus … but on the other hand, in my time riding the bus, I know that it’s 100 percent essential to peoples’ lives that rely on the bus to get to work and get their groceries, or even like getting to doctor’s appointments or getting to the hospital,” Musa said.  

“I feel like it equals out at some point.” Musa continued, “(EMTA is) reducing the exposure to the virus as much as possible so that those people can reap some benefits.” 

“I feel like at some point if you take away something that’s essential — like the bus — people who ride it wouldn’t even have access to basic things that they need to reduce their exposure to the disease,” she continued, pointing to the fact that many riders utilize the bus in order to travel to stores to purchase cleaning supplies, as well as getting to the hospital should they feel ill. 

“So I feel like getting rid of the bus or drastically reducing its service would act more as a disservice to public health than a service to public health,” she said.

EMTA is aware of this challenge. To maintain safety of riders and employees while disrupting service as little as possible, Peterson said they have enacted new cleaning practices. Nightly bus sanitizing and cleaning high-traffic areas on LIFT buses after riders disembark are some of the ways EMTA is doing this. 

In the name of public health, EMTA says it will continue to adhere to its plan until further notice.

“We want everybody to be self assured that once it is safe — completely safe — and we get the green light to start slowly opening up businesses, we will get back to a full schedule as soon as we possibly can,” Peterson told the Capital-Star. 

“These steps were made to ensure safety amongst our staff and our valued customers, so just be patient with us,” Peterson continued. “We understand that the service may not meet everybody’s requirements currently. However, we will get back to full service here shortly. As long as we do our parts, I feel that our bus service will be back up and running at full capacity, soon.”

Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.