Santa Barbara MTD bus is cleaned.
Santa Barbara MTD workers clean and sanitize a bus as part of the agency’s stepped-up efforts to protect riders and drivers during the coronavirus outbreak. (Courtesy photo)

Local transportation services are taking extra precautions with the evolving coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and are continuing to offer vital services so that riders can meet their crucial daily needs.

Santa Barbara MTD is operating its vehicles, and it has implemented free fares and rear-door boarding during the outbreak.

“We provide an essential service, and that’s why we are still running,” Hillary Blackerby, MTD’s planning and marketing manager, told Noozhawk. “Those essential employees that rely on our service are still taking it.

“If you are sick at all, or feel sick — no matter what your job is — stay home. If you have to go to work … we are here to serve you, but maintain social distancing and wash your hands.”

All MTD fixed-route bus service will be provided free of charge until further notice, Blackerby said in a statement.

Bus riders without disabilities will board and exit only through the rear doors of the vehicle to minimize contact with bus operators at the front door and the farebox.

Passengers using mobility devices or who need the ramp will be allowed to board and get off from the front door of the vehicle, Blackerby said.

To help curb the spread of the coronavirus, bus drivers will monitor passenger capacity, allowing more space between riders. The adjustment will increase the physical distance between passengers by limiting the number of people on board buses as a way to keep 6-feet social distancing measures.

Eight people will be allowed on a 40-foot bus and five people on a 30-foot bus.

An MTD bus may pass up — the vehicle is too full to pick up more riders waiting at a stop — if it has the maximum number based on the new level of ridership.

The public transit agency has already implemented additional cleaning protocols, including disinfecting the bus fleet every night, using medical-grade disinfectant on all high-touch surfaces such as door handles, stanchions, seat-back handles, grab bars, fareboxes and driver areas.

Santa Barbara MTD implements rear-door boarding during coronavirus.

In an effort to minimize contact with drivers, only Santa Barbara MTD riders using mobility devices or who need the ramp will be allowed to use the front doors of a bus. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

“They are always cleaned, but we added an additional nightly disinfecting of all the high-touch surfaces on the bus,” Blackerby said.

In addition, portable toilets at the temporary transit center in downtown Santa Barbara are supplied with hand sanitizer dispensers. 

MTD also launched a reduced-service plan because of closures. The agency is lowering service levels on several lines associated with area educational institutions because schools closed campus operations to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Click here for more information about MTD schedules and bus routes.

MTD ridership was down 60 percent to 70 percent in the past week because of changes forced by the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders enacted in California.

“At least a third of our ridership is UC Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College and K-12,” Blackerby said. “They are all gone.”

Schools, entertainment venues, “nonessential” businesses and other agencies across Santa Barbara County and the state have shut down indefinitely because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

For more information about changes to MTD’s transit center customer service functions and administrative office reception area, click here.

The Santa Barbara MTD board of directors this past week unanimously adopted a resolution declaring a fiscal and public health emergency in response to the coronavirus. 

“Declaring a fiscal emergency acknowledges the recent precipitous drop in our ridership and loss of passenger fares due to COVID-19,” MTD board chair Dave Davis said in a statement. “We also anticipate a major decline in sales tax revenue and need to gird for these losses as an agency.”

The declaration, voted on during a special meeting held Friday, “was made in light of the evolving public health situation, and to allow MTD to plan, prepare and react to future fiscal and public health developments appropriately,” MTD General Manager Jerry Estrada said in a statement.

Along with the rest of the transit industry, MTD leaders will follow the guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

The nonprofit Easy Lift Transportation continues to provide its long-established Dial-a-Ride service to seniors and people living with disabilities, Executive Director Ernesto Paredes said.

Easy Lift Transportation van

Easy Lift Transportation says its drivers are cleaning vans after each passenger ride as a precaution during the coronavirus outbreak. (Courtesy photo)

The organization provides a wide variety of specialized transportation-related services in the south Santa Barbara community, and passengers use it for medical appointments, work, school, grocery shopping and more.

Easy Lift Transportation ridership requests have fallen about 45 percent because recreation centers and several businesses closed amid the spread of the coronavirus, Paredes said.

Passengers are continuing to request rides for dialysis and cancer treatments, prescription pickups and trips to grocery stores.

“Our drivers have been trained for this type of community emergency,” Paredes said, adding that Easy Lift Transportation has longtime partnerships with the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, the county Public Health Department as well as nonprofit organizations.

“Having been with the agency for 28 years, we have been through many fires, flooding, earthquakes, power outages, poor economies and community leadership changes, but can confidently say that our community has been ready for this,” Paredes said. “Although a pandemic is rarely expected, our precautions and communication with local government, businesses and nonprofit sector has never been better.”

Easy Lift Transportation has taken extra sanitation measures such as increasing the cleanliness of vans and the office facility to daily, as well as drivers cleaning after each passenger ride, Paredes said.

The transportation service has scheduling software that allows staff to pinpoint areas of the community that have many vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities who cannot readily access programs and services, he said.  

“Each driver has a mobile tablet that allows us to communicate changes in schedule or any specifics about the people being picked up,” Paredes said. “Our greatest technology, though, is the relationships we have established over the years.”

As a nonprofit organization, Easy Lift Transportation is dependent on donations, foundation grants and state grants, Paredes said.

“We intend to maximize the usage of the vehicles, as well as our ‘people power’ to serve our community,” Paredes said. “I love this community and we will continue to be a part of the solution, now and for years to come.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.