Walla Walla Valley Transit has created a plan that gradually restores bus routes and schedules to meet ridership demands as the economy begins to reopen under Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased plan.
Although public transportation has been an essential service throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the closure of nonessential businesses has decreased ridership demand.
Hence, Valley Transit scaled back services while simultaneously implementing safety measures that include sanitizing the buses multiple times throughout the day with an electrostatic disinfecting machine and implementing 6-foot social distancing measures by keeping buses at six passengers or fewer.
Rear boarding and de-boarding also became standard practice, except for with disabled passengers.
To safely bring back public transportation, Valley Transit officials have created a four-phased approach to match the state’s four-phased reopening plan.
Now that Walla Walla County has been approved for Phase 2, Valley Transit expects to implement its own Phase 2 on June 1, according to Jesse Kinney, deputy general manager of Valley Transit.
The operaiton will continue with one bus per hour, but at peak times — 11:45 a.m.-4:45 p.m. — mainline east and west and the routes 4 and 5 will run every half hour.
No evening service will yet be added and Dial-a-Ride continues at reduced capacity.
“The goal for the transit, because we are an essential service, isn’t necessarily to put more service back on the road, but it’s to meet the demands of the public as they return to their jobs, or return to shopping or other services that they’re beginning to access again,” Kinney said.
Valley Transit requests passengers wear a mask and stay home if they are ill throughout each phase.
In Phase 1, Valley Transit runs all regular routes but with just one bus per hour instead of two. Six passengers are allowed onboard at a time, which will continue to be the case until the county moves into Phase 4. At that point, under Valley Transit’s plan, buses will be brought to 50% capacity.
“The seating capacity and the health requests are in conjunction with the CDC and the county health department on what they think are appropriate levels of requirements for anybody in the COVID-19 pandemic. So we are just continuing to maintain those things,” Kinney said.
The Valley Transit board of directors elected to extend the COVID-19 fare-free structure until August 31, he said, meaning services will continue to be fare-free.
One thing officials noticed recently during the reduced services was a higher demand for Walmart shoppers, so they provided a dedicated shuttle that transports up to nine people from the transfer station on Main Street to Walmart.
This bus is much larger than the trolleys, so it allows for more passengers with social distancing measures in place.
The Walmart shuttle runs two buses per hour, every 30 minutes, 1-6 p.m., Monday through Friday. That will continue in Phase 2, according to the chart describing the phases, posted on the Walla Walla Valley Transit Facebook page.
“We’ve had a trend where we are kind of stacking up people at the transfer center down there on Main Street for the mainline, particularly for the west loops,” General Manager Angie Peters said last week when the shuttle had just begun. “We had so many people that were trying to go just to Walmart and then we’d have people who needed that route to go to work or get home from work.”
With just one bus running per hour, that created long waits, she said. The solution became the dedicated shuttle to Walmart.
In Phase 3, Valley Transit will bring back all bus routes to run every half hour, except routes 7 and 9, which typically run every hour in normal circumstances. Evening service will be restored to 50% capacity, and the office will reopen.
In Phase 4, full evening service and Dial-a-Ride capacity will be brought back.