Riders waiting for the bus in Walla Walla at Valley Transit’s Market Station transfer center downtown.

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Walla Walla and Columbia county’s public transportation systems today eliminated bus fares and are taking COVID-19 virus protection measures.

Both are also urging residents to not ride buses if they’re sick.

“We are seeing a decrease in ridership,” said Angie Peters, Walla Walla Valley Transit general manager.

Ridership for fixed routes is down 20% and the Dial-a-Ride service is down 40%, she said.

Making fares free is not aimed at increase ridership but to lower the financial burden of riders who need to get groceries and are out of a job right due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

Free fares also means drivers and staff will no longer have to handle money from passengers, Peters said. Drivers are exposed to an average of 150 people per day.

To further protect drivers and practice social distancing, Valley Transit riders must enter buses through back doors only and sit no closer than 6 feet from the driver.

Normal operating schedules will continue for now, and the free fares are to run to the end of May.

“We haven’t started any service reduction but it could happen if there is more of a heavy risk,” Peters said.

Free fares will mean a loss of between $24,500 and $37,300 by the end of May, she said.

The state’s Department of Transportation is offering 80% reimbursement for emergency expenses due to the pandemic, but Walla Walla County’s comparatively small population puts Valley Transit on a lower funding priority, Peters said.

Columbia County Public Transportation is also offering free fares and taking similar driver and rider protection measures, said Megan Schmidt, administrative assistant.

“We normally deeply sanitize buses every week but now it is every day,” she said.

Ridership in Columbia County is down 60% to 75%. Half of the riders were students at schools that have closed and people now unemployed due to the pandemic.

“There is not a huge financial impact because we run mostly on grants, Schmidt said. “But this may affect future grants because of lower ridership numbers.”

Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers civic engagement in the Walla Walla Valley including city governments, county commissioners and other civic groups. She is a recent graduate from San Francisco State University and came to join our team in October 2019.

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