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Updated: June 15, 2020

The coronavirus has sunk public transportation ridership. Will it come back?

Photos | HBJ File Rich Andreski (right), of the state Department of Transportation, said he predicts public transportation ridership will make a slow but full comeback.

When the city of Hartford released its 15-year master plan in January, a major goal was to increase access to and use of public transportation.

Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Sara Bronin.

“In many ways in Hartford we have no choice,” Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Sara Bronin said of the city’s focus on public transportation. “About a third of our households don’t have access to a car.”

But it didn’t take long for that plan and the future of Connecticut’s public transportation system to be upended.

In mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced business shutdowns and social-distancing requirements, ridership on Connecticut’s public transit system plummeted: bus service use dropped by about 60%, while Hartford Line rail service ridership fell nearly 95%.

That’s raised concerns about the financial future of Connecticut’s public transportation system.

While ridership has rebounded a bit since then, questions remain over whether or not a skittish public will return to buses or trains anytime soon, or if the pandemic will lead to long-term changes in public-transportation use.

For now, state transportation officials are working under the assumption ridership will bounce back as businesses reopen, while some of downtown Hartford’s largest employers say their public-transportation incentive programs will remain largely unchanged when workers eventually return to the office.

“It’s an absolutely critical service,” said Garrett Eucalitto, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Transportation. “We are going to do everything we can to make our passengers feel as comfortable as possible coming back to our services.”

Since Connecticut’s public transit ridership hit its nadir in March, passenger counts have slowly increased, said Rich Andreski, bureau chief of public transportation at the DOT. Bus ridership is currently down about 40%, while rail ridership is still down 90%.

Prior to coronavirus, the Springfield-to-New Haven Hartford Line’s rail ridership was up 25% year-over-year as of January and on pace to exceed 750,000 passenger trips in its second year of operation. It debuted in June 2018.

Meantime, during the month of May, the CTfastrak New Britain-to-Hartford busway recorded 11,742 average weekday local and express passenger trips, down 52% from a year earlier.

DOT has kept most buslines in full service during the pandemic, and revamped its cleaning procedures. The interior of each bus is now deep cleaned twice per day, while drivers are provided personal protective equipment and passengers are encouraged to wear masks and socially distance. If necessary, Andreski said, DOT is willing to run additional buses on popular lines to enable social distancing.

He predicts ridership will see a slow, but full recovery, and there is some evidence to back that up.

A survey conducted during the last two weeks of May by the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which advocates for reducing car dependency, found 92% of respondents who use public transit as their primary transportation mode plan to return to it after COVID-19 subsides.

Additionally, Andreski said it’s just not possible for everyone in Connecticut who used to take public transportation to start driving to work.

“As business gets back to normal, there’s just simply not the capacity to accommodate everybody in single-occupancy vehicles,” he said.

Financial challenges

Even if riders come back to public transit, many state public transportation systems are already facing serious financial headwinds as a result of the pandemic.

CTfastrak runs daily buses between Hartford and New Britain.

U.S. transit agencies are facing an overall funding shortfall of $48.8 billion between the second quarter of this year and the end of 2021 as a result of decreased ridership and likely budget cuts at the state level, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

It’s not clear whether the state will cut DOT’s budget, Eucalitto said, but Connecticut’s special transportation fund, which underwrites infrastructure improvement projects, was projected to run out of money by fiscal year 2023 even before the coronavirus hit.

That’s why Gov. Ned Lamont has spent most of his governorship advocating for highway tolls.

Last year, the state spent $473.4 million on rail and bus operations, according to the DOT.

Some short-term financial relief is on the way. Connecticut is receiving a $224.3-million grant from the Federal Transit Authority to cover COVID-19-related expenses for rail and bus operations. The money will cover the costs of personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and driver salaries, Andreski said.

Despite the budget challenges, DOT is still planning by next June to purchase new cars for and add another round-trip to the Hartford Line rail service.

Employers still support public transit

None of the 150 companies that work with CTrides, a DOT agency that advises employers and commuters on how to use the state’s public transit system, have told Larry Filler they plan to change their incentive programs — including subsidized bus and rail passes — that encourage employees to use public transportation.

Filler, CTrides’ senior director of business development and program services, said he believes public transportation use to and from work will recover, but maybe not completely, as some companies will likely allow certain employees to work remotely permanently.

“It’s going to be a mixed picture for a while, I would not say it’s going to just switch on,” Filler said.

A couple of major downtown Hartford companies said they don’t plan to make significant changes to their current policies. Travelers Cos. offers employees pre-tax subsidized bus passes through payroll deduction, and about 20% of its downtown Hartford employees use it, a Travelers spokesperson said.

“We have had the program in place for many years and have no plans on changing the offering due to COVID-19,” the spokesperson said via email. “The majority of our employees continue to work remotely, but when they do begin to return to the office, we will recommend they maintain appropriate social distancing measures, including while using public transportation.”

A spokesperson for health insurer Aetna, which offers its Hartford employees a monthly subsidy to use van carpools or buses, said the company doesn’t expect any changes to its public transit incentive program, but will re-evaluate in coming months.

Pedaling around

Bronin, the wife of Mayor Luke Bronin and a law professor at the UConn School of Law, said the city will continue to encourage the use of public transportation and bikes.

She points to cities like Tokyo and Seoul, which have extensive public transit systems and COVID-19 transmission rates lower than the U.S., as evidence the public can still safely ride buses and trains.

The pandemic has actually allowed the city to accelerate plans to paint more bike lanes on Hartford’s roadways, she said.

“One advantage that we have right now during the coronavirus pandemic is there’s not a lot of cars on the road, which means that we’re able to do things like striping or road improvements,” Bronin said.

Anthony Cherolis, an activist for non-car travel and program manager at the Center for Latino Progress, said revenues at BiCi Co., a nonprofit associated with the Center that fixes and customizes bicycles, rose 25% in the first four months of this year, which could indicate greater bike use during the pandemic.

On public transportation as a whole, Cherolis also says it will bounce back.

“I think we’d be better served by continuing to increase our transit ridership and transit-oriented development with the best [cleaning and hygiene] practices in place,” Cherolis said. “It would be terrifying if we choose to slide into an even more car-centric future.”

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