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  • The current state of COAST’s public transit services

    DOVER –The pandemic has been full of unprecedented decisions and challenges for the region’s public transportation provider, the Cooperative Alliance for Seacoast Transportation (COAST), as it has for almost every other business and organization in the Greater Seacoast. Throughout the pandemic the organization has persevered, and even implemented the biggest changes to the regional bus system in the organization’s 38 year history, as its staff have recommitted themselves to their essential public service role.

    To follow is a high-level summary of COAST operations and impacts through the pandemic to date.

    March 2020
    Through the first half of March average weekday fixed route ridership was up 24% over the previous fiscal year to date (FYTD) average. By the third week in March, as it became more apparent that community spread was beginning to happen in the region, ridership had dropped to 22% below the previous FYTD average, and by the fourth week it dropped to 46% below the previous FYTD average.

    In response to an increased prevalence of the virus in the Greater Seacoast region, protocols to increase vehicle sanitization were implemented and increased over the course of the month, as well as encouragement to use available personal protective equipment (PPE), which was in very short supply.

    As the month progressed, several employees also became increasingly uncomfortable with their potential exposure to the virus and chose to opt out of work. At the same time, the organization began to update and relax leave policies to allow for employees to make these difficult choices more freely.

    Service Suspension
    On March 31, 2020 in an emergency meeting of the COAST Executive Committee of the Board of Directors, the decision was made to suspend all fixed route service, and Route 7 On Demand, effective the end of business that day. The decision was made in the interest of the health and safety of passengers and staff.

    Suspended fixed route services included: Route 1, Route 2, Route 6, Route 33, Route 40, Route 41, Route 41cc, Route 100, Route 101, Route 103, as well as Route 7 On Demand. COAST continued to operate demand response (paratransit) services for those individuals who qualified under the various programs of this type that COAST operates (ADA, Portsmouth Senior Transportation, Community Rides, and accessible rides for Ready Rides), but on a reduced Monday – Friday schedule.

    Additional protocols were instituted relative to the use of PPE and sanitizing the fleet and facilities.

    The suspension of the identified services remained in place until May 11.

    Service Resumption

    Once adequate PPE had been secured, further protocols had been instituted, staff had been trained and new service levels were determined based on staff availability, COAST resumed fixed route services over the course of four (4) phases beginning on May 11. As more bus operators who had been out due to COVID-19 concerns returned, this enabled COAST to transition to the next phase.

    As service was resumed, passengers were asked initially to limit their trips to only essential trips and strongly encouraged to use face masks or coverings. These were put in place to encourage and maintain safe physical distancing.

    Phase 1: starting on May 11, COAST resumed most fixed routes to either a weekday or Saturday level of service.

    Phase 2: starting on May 26, full Route 1 and Route 33 weekday services were resumed.

    Phase 3: starting on June 1, Route 41cc and increased frequency of services on Routes 40 & 41 were resumed.

    Phase 4: starting on June 29, COAST launched their newly redesigned system (at full service levels) and has maintained those service levels to date.

    Ridership Impacts

    After shutting completely down in April and the first part of May, weekly ridership on COAST’s fixed route services has steadily grown from a low that equaled only 22% of pre-pandemic ridership levels (during the week of May 11) to now equaling nearly 55% of pre-pandemic levels. Over that same time services increased significantly, from a limited restart, to a full launch of COAST’s redesigned public transit system on June 29.

    “We are very happy with the growth in ridership we have seen over the past 16 weeks,” commented Rad Nichols. “You have to remember that there are a lot of people who unfortunately do not have jobs to go to. Many with jobs are also working fully remotely now. Additionally, many students are, and will continue to, attend their classes remotely. The nearly overnight adoption of telehealth is also impacting ridership, as well as folks simply following guidance and only going out into their communities when essential or necessary.”

    COAST’s demand response (paratransit) services for qualified elderly adults and individuals with disabilities have also slowly been growing over the course of the pandemic, after hitting a low of 770 total trips during the month of April (only 40% of pre-pandemic levels). In comparison, in July and August ridership has averaged 62% of pre-pandemic levels.

    Riding the Bus Now

    If you have not ridden public transit and COAST since the beginning of the pandemic, a lot has changed since the beginning of March. Things you should notice when you board and use COAST now:
    • Passengers are being asked to stay home if they are not feeling well
    • Passengers are being asked to talk less, and quietly, when onboard the bus to reduce microdroplets onboard
    • Face masks or coverings are strongly encouraged
    • Before boarding, passengers are being asked to wait for anyone deboarding and to give them plenty of extra space
    • When you board the bus the bus operator may be behind a clear protective barrier that they close when boarding and alighting passengers
    • Hand sanitizer is available at the front of the bus for everyone to use before they move to the passenger area
    • Seats are marked off to encourage physical distancing while riding, unless you are riding together as a group
    • Staff are prioritizing sanitizing common touchpoints periodically throughout service the day

    Nichols said, “We are taking precautions to attempt to make our buses as safe as possible to ride and we are operating to meet our many passenger’s daily transportation needs. Throughout this pandemic our staff have shown an incredible commitment to our mission to provide customer-focused public transportation with a commitment to excellence in safety and service.”

    Budgetary Impacts

    Revenues associated with services being on the street or passengers using the system (for example, fares, contract revenues, advertising) have all been decimated because of the pandemic. Expenses at COAST are down overall, however the overall cost of operations has increased due to COVID-19 and newly implemented protocols to maintain safety. Some emergency funding has been made available through the FTA, but it is temporary, and it is yet to be seen if it will be sufficient as the ripple effects of the pandemic are anticipated to be longer term.

    “Operating through the pandemic has been an incredibly challenging experience, but I am very proud of all of our staff and the adjustments we have been able to make on the fly to respond to what we were faced with. Our goal was always to return to full service levels as safely and quickly as possible for our passengers and staff,” said Nichols.

    The Cooperative Alliance for Seacoast Transportation (COAST) has provided public transit service to the Seacoast New Hampshire region since 1982. COAST is a non-profit agency, operating a regional public transit system that relies primarily on federal and local government support to operate. COAST is governed by a board of directors representing the communities served, two regional planning commissions, and many local and state agencies. COAST’s vision is to be an innovative leader in providing a broad range of public transportation services, connecting, and coordinating a robust network of transportation options for everyone.