BRTA chief: Next days 'critical' in gauging virus impact on public transit

The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority's administrator said Monday changes in ridership or staffing over the next few days could determine whether the virus, which is believed to have spread through community contact in the Berkshires, will compel changes in service.

PITTSFIELD — Public transit operated as usual Monday in Berkshire County, one week after officials declared state and national coronavirus emergencies.

But a week from now, the picture could be different.

Robert Malnati, administrator of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, said changes in ridership or staffing over the next few days could determine whether the virus, which is believed to have spread through community contact in the Berkshires, will compel changes in service.

In the meantime, the authority took time Monday to rearrange seating in the Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center in Pittsfield to provide more separation. It continues to use a stepped-up sanitation regimen both for the center and its vehicles.

As of last week, people climbed aboard the authority's fleet in usual numbers, with the count off 1 percent from the same week last year, a difference that could be related to weather.

The numbers suggest that even amid concerns of contagion, bus and van routes remain essential to Berkshires families.

"That might be their lifeline to go get groceries," Malnati said. "We are still providing service to the community, as long as we can. We are part of that critical infrastructure."

But ridership is being closely watched, as well as staffing and the health of employees. As of Monday, no BRTA employee had been sidelined with a case of COVID-19.

Malnati got off a conference call Monday with other statewide transit leaders aware that conditions could worsen in Berkshire County, as they have in other transit districts.

"You are already looking at dramatic decreases," he said of regional bus service elsewhere.

Douglas McNally of Windsor, vice chair of the BRTA's advisory board, said that by their nature, as enclosed spaces, buses and vans run counter to public health cautions about retaining social distance. "That's what you're not supposed to be doing," said McNally.

At the same time, the transit authority depends upon drivers and other staff, including maintenance workers, to sustain the current level of service. The BRTA provided transportation for 41,000 riders in January. Typically, the authority serves a half million riders a year.

"If the illness spikes and hits the driving corps, you might not be able to run the routes," McNally said.

That could lead the authority to cut back on the frequency of runs along its routes. "It's a scheduling nightmare but it might be necessary if you don't have enough drivers," McNally said.

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Malnati said that though Berkshire Community College has halted operations, the authority has continued to provide service to the college, since the route is used to reach homes and businesses on the west side of downtown Pittsfield.

A pilot route linking BCC with Walmart, on the east side of the city, is also operating, but its ridership is under review as well, Malnati said.

Any changes deemed necessary due to the virus will be described to the advisory board, he said, with advance notice to the region's mayors and lawmakers.

Clean machines

Late last year, anticipating the seasonal flu, the BRTA began using a new broad spectrum disinfectant on bus surfaces like seats, grab bars and stanchions. Tabs of the material are dissolved in misting devices.

"It wraps itself around and clings to different surfaces," Malnati said of the product. Once it dries, as vehicles sit overnight in storage in a garage on Downing Industrial Parkway, the disinfectant is said to remain active for 48 hours.

Since February, the material has been used daily instead of every other day. The change was designed to head off a return of the seasonal flu, Malnati said.

In a post to its website Friday, the authority pledged that its operators follow protocols laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on hand-washing "and general etiquette to remain healthy."

Though on the lookout for trouble stemming from the virus, Malnati did find one silver lining.

As oil prices fall globally, the BRTA recently signed a six-month contract for both diesel and unleaded gasoline.

"It's less than what we were paying," he said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.