Metro Bus and Rail will suspend fare collection throughout its two-county system to avoid handling money and pass cards during the Covid-19 outbreak.
If the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's board of commissioners approves a resolution on its Thursday agenda – as expected – bus, rail and paratransit commuters will ride free for the foreseeable future, though officials are not yet sure when the program will begin.
Suspending the $2 fare for the NFTA's 83,000 daily bus and rail passengers would normally wreak financial havoc, but officials say ridership has dropped so dramatically because workers are staying home, that the move will result in relatively negligible effects.
"There has been such a decline that it may not have that much of a financial impact," authority spokeswoman Helen Tederous said.
In addition, Tederous said reducing the instances of money exchanges between passengers and bus operators will provide a new layer of safety against the highly contagious novel coronavirus.
"That exchange of money, and even of day passes, will now be totally eliminated. There will be no touching," she said.
The move will also allow bus passengers to enter and exit through the back door in another effort to minimize contact with drivers.
"The idea is that it helps with social distancing and helps our operators," she said. "We've seen it introduced around the country."
According to the resolution to be considered Thursday, the move stems from the interaction of employees, ticket inspectors they call "transit ambassadors," and police officers to determine proof of payment on Metro Rail.
"This involves the visual inspection of fare media, putting these individuals in close proximity to our ridership," the resolution says, referring to workers who check for fares paid via smart phones. "On the bus side, operators require individuals to insert cash into the farebox, swipe magnetic stripe enabled passes, and present non-magnetic stripe fare media or proof of reduced-fare eligibility. These activities result in dwell time at the farebox at the front of the bus.
"Temporarily eliminating fare collection will also allow bus operations the ability to utilize rear-door boarding, which will maximize social distancing," the resolution adds.
Indeed, Rochester's Regional Transit Service instituted free rides throughout its system on Friday and expects it to continue until at least April 19.
“At this point, everyone should stay home and practice social distancing at all times. However we recognize that some travel is essential,” Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said last week. “We are grateful RTS is ensuring everyone has access to transportation to get those essential items, such as food or medicine."
The NFTA has not yet compiled statistics for the drop-off in commuters during the pandemic, but Tederous said it is significant.
Consideration had been given to adopting a reduced service Saturday schedule throughout the week, but Tederous said many medical and other emergency workers are so dependent on the system that the NFTA decided to maintain its weekday routes. She noted that the Capital District Transportation Authority had adopted a weekend schedule for its routes in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area.
“We got a lot of feedback from medical workers, people who work at grocery stores, and others thanking us" for retaining full service, she said. “We were starting to get requests from businesses and hard-hit individuals who need the service. We want to be there for the community and help in any way we can.”