SouthWest Transit will suspend some of its services beginning Monday, March 23, in response to a steep drop in ridership since the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis swept over the southwest metro, members of the SouthWest Transit Commission decided at its March 19 meeting.
Around 65% of express buses and around a third of Prime services will be suspended until further notice, the Commission ruled. Carver station and the Chanhassen station next to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres will close until further notice.
Buses will run hourly at midday and at 15-minute intervals in the afternoon and evening. The final westbound bus will depart the University of Minnesota for SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie at 6:22 p.m.
SouthWest Transit will also furlough between 26 and 30 of its drivers. After two weeks of paid furlough, the drivers will have to use their own paid time off and sick leave, which should total to around three or four weeks of paid absence. After that, drivers can apply for the expanded unemployment benefits that Gov. Tim Walz enacted in response to mass closures and layoffs in industries across Minnesota.
The steep decline in service began on March 12 as a wave of events were canceled across the metro area. By March 19, just over 90% of SouthWest’s express passengers were no longer riding its buses. SouthWest’s Prime saw a 52% drop in that same period. Usage of the Prime MD service is low enough that its rider numbers haven’t changed much since March 12.
On March 19, around 125 people used SouthWest’s services. Only eight of those were at Carver station and none at Chanhassen.
The SouthWest Transit Commission has received little guidance from the Metropolitan Council and will not take its cues from Metro Transit’s actions because its riders’ needs and resources are dramatically different, commissioners said. Around 97% of SouthWest Transit’s passengers use SouthWest Transit’s services by choice, which is not the case for many of Metro Transit’s riders.
The difficulty will be striking a balance between service suspensions to cut costs, and maintaining enough of a fleet that riders and drivers can practice social distancing, commissioners said.
“We’re taking every precaution we can to keep our riders and drivers as safe as we can,” Chief Executive Officer Len Simich told Southwest News Media. “We’re doing a lot still even though the riders have dropped dramatically.”
The Commission also unanimously passed an emergency resolution to cooperate with the states of emergency passed by Chaska, Chanhassen, Eden Prairie and Carver County. It will allow SouthWest Transit to more easily adjust or suspend its services, execute its emergency preparedness plan and accept outside sources of funding to make up for lack of fare revenue and the motor vehicle sales tax, said Chair Brad Aho.
The total losses from these actions will be around $300,000, but the savings from suspending services could be around $320,000, commissioners said. SouthWest Transit has some financial reserves to fall back on, but its services could look different after the coronavirus crisis ends, commissioners warned. With the costs of additional staff and cleaning at $40,000, that’s a estimated loss of around $20,000, Simich told Southwest News. The organization is tracking all expenditures related to COVID-19.
Commissioners Brad Aho, Mike Huang, Bob Roepke, Jerry McDonald, Bethany Tjornhorm, P.G. Narayanan and Jody Bonnevier were present at the meeting. The SouthWest Transit Commission will hold a teleconference meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, its members decided. All future meetings will be held remotely unless otherwise indicated.
Metro Transit, as of March 17, suspended overnight service between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. on all regular route buses and light rail lines, with the exception of the METRO Blue Line airport shuttle between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 stations, which will operate overnight. Then starting March 25, it made changes in service that led to about a 40% reduction in service in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 while serving those who need to make essential trips using public transit.
“We understand these changes will create inconveniences, but we also know that we must adapt to adequately address this public health emergency,” Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra said in a news release. “These changes will also allow us to provide more reliable service as we focus limited resources on meeting our new schedules.”
In general, the service cuts mean most local bus routes will operate at Saturday service levels and express bus service will be limited; trips on the METRO Blue Line and Green Line will operate every 20 minutes; the Northstar Commuter Rail Line will operate at a reduced schedule; and no service will be provided between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m.
These changes come after ridership on buses and the light rail has declined about 60% and Northstar ridership has dropped about 90%.Updated schedules are available at metrotransit.org.
The Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit and Metro Mobility, is requesting riders to cancel all non-essential trips, especially if you’re a rider with underlying health conditions like diabetes, asthma or heart disease.
“Customers using the service should wash your hands before riding, cover coughs and sneezes, take precautions to keep space between yourself and others, and stay home if you’re sick,” the Met Council said in a March 18 news release. “We are working with our drivers to help keep riders appropriately spaced on the bus. We are doing a complete disinfection of Metro Mobility buses every other day.”
Meanwhile, Metro Mobility is offering to pick up online orders of groceries and household essentials from local stores and deliver them to certified Metro Mobility customers for free.
Customers can book same day or in advance the same way one books a ride for themselves.
SOUTHWEST LRT CONSTRUCTION
Construction along the Southwest Light Rail Transit line, which will connect Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, and regional sewer improvement projects will continue at this time, the Met Council said on March 18.