Last September, “I thought I could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority CEO Matt Carpenter. “I didn’t realize it was a train!”

TheRide’s Covid tunnel has been long and dark–and it’s not out yet. In the fiscal year ending in September 2019, AAATA logged 6.3 million trips. That fell to 3.5 million in 2020 and to 1.7 million in 2021.

“Our ridership disappeared–except for essential workers,” Carpenter says. “We fell back from full-service to partial service to Sunday service, which is our lowest level of regular service.” AAATA cut staff by 15 percent.

As vaccinations spread last spring, the number of rides slowly rose to 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels. In August, federal aid allowed TheRide to restore full service. By October, ridership hit 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels and stayed there through January.

But “Omicron changed the game for us because of its sheer transmissibility,” Carpenter says. With 10 percent of drivers and mechanics out sick, everyone worked overtime, but “it’s just not reasonable or, frankly, safe to have someone doing those sorts of jobs too many hours a day, too many hours a week.”

So at the end of January, the authority rolled out a contingency plan that kept all routes open but reduced how often the buses ran. “Rather than leave the whole neighborhood without bus service, if the bus was coming every fifteen minutes, now it’s gonna come every half-an-hour,” he explains. “On main trunk lines like Washtenaw Avenue Route Four, if that bus was coming every seven minutes, now it’s gonna come every fifteen.

“The staged pullback hopefully will keep ridership roughly where it is,” the CEO continues. “Our thought is: let’s get through the Omicron, understand how our workforce is bearing [up, and] give them a rest before we start to ramp things back up.”

“It really is necessary to cut down on the service,” agrees Delisa Brown, bus driver and chief of Transport Workers Union Local 171, which represents the AAATA’s drivers, mechanics, and information specialists. “Like everybody else, there’s a workers shortage. Some people have retired. We can’t get enough people hired to do all of the work.”

Like most other industries, the ‘AAATA has had a “fair number of unexpected retirements,” Carpenter says. “People are saying, ‘Now’s a good time to hang up the spurs.'”

“It’s hard getting people to apply for the jobs lately,” Brown adds. “I don’t know why. It’s not a tough job. You could do it with your eyes closed–though I wouldn’t recommend it!”

Of course, sharing an enclosed space with a constantly changing collection of other people isn’t many people’s first choice for a pandemic job. “We’ve retrofitted all the buses with additional ventilation, and they all have glass around the drivers’ compartments,” Carpenter says, but “we’re continuously recruiting now.

“Once upon a time, we did one or two big classes a year, and we would bring in like twenty or thirty drivers at a time. Now, maybe ten start the classes, and seven or eight graduate.”

Since the pandemic began two years ago, seventy-one of AAATA’s approximately 170 employees have tested positive for Covid. Not every union member has gotten vaccinated, and, unlike the city and U-M, the AAATA has never required it. “It’s a personal choice,” says Brown. “The company isn’t forcing anybody.

“We had one [person] that passed away at the very beginning of the pandemic,” she says. “But other than that, there have been some hospitalized, but thankfully all have recovered.”

While vaccination is optional, masks remain mandatory, at least for now: the Transportation Security Administration recently extended a rule requiring them on public transit through March 18.

TheRide makes masks available for riders, and Carpenter says, “ninety-nine percent of people are compliant without even having to be asked.” But the CEO admits that “there’s still a lot of frustration with the requirement for masks. There are still people, although very rarely, who want to argue with us about whether or not they need to do it to use public transit.

“Around about November, we had a gentleman in a wheelchair come into the Blake Transit Center with some supporters, and he very defiantly refused to put on a mask.” Staff diplomatically de-escalated the situation, Carpenter says, and “we never heard anything else about it.”

For drivers, it’s “not a comfortable feeling being out there” in a pandemic, Brown admits. But “we still have to do it, no matter what new variant comes out, or if it’s more contagious, more deadly, or whatever.”

Brown is unhappy that the authority provides drivers and mechanics with only surgical masks; Carpenter says that’s because getting enough N95s has been a problem.

Many workers, Brown says, are bringing their own N95s. “The only thing we can do,” she says, “is try our best to keep our mask up, be as safe as possible.”

Though TheRide lost half its riders, it didn’t lose half its revenue. Pre-pandemic, only 17 percent of its income came from fares, with the rest coming from local taxes and state and federal grants. In fiscal years 2020 and 2021, it received $18.5 million in federal pandemic relief, with another $18.7 million budgeted for this year.

Carpenter says those funds have “a lot of strings attached: they can only be used to support transit operations, and it’s a reimbursement program, not a grant.” But they’ve enabled the authority to maintain close to full employment and move ahead on capital projects like an expanded Ypsi transit center and a new bus garage, while still increasing budget reserves.

So the AAATA can endure even if ridership stays low for years. “We’re here for the long haul,” says Carpenter. And he’s expecting riders to return–he just doesn’t know when.

The authority is developing a new long-range plan for release this spring and is holding virtual meetings to gauge public reaction. “We presented to the ‘Ypsilanti city council and the Ypsilanti Township board of trustees really got a lot of great input from people,” says Carpenter. “We gave them some scenarios to react to, and some of them were pretty aggressive.

“For example, the city of Ann Arbor has some plans that call for very heavy expansion of the transit system, whether that’s part of their transportation master plan or the A2Zero carbon neutrality plan. Both of those call for a lot more people riding public transit.”

The CEO sees three possible futures: It may “take us a couple years to rebuild the ridership. It may take four or five years to claw our way back up. Or we may see some sort of massive turnaround really fast.”

“We had a huge ridership pre-‘pandemic,” says Brown, “and you would hope that at some point, the world has to come back to some kind of normal, [and] people ride the bus again–whether it is University of Michigan employees [or] students going to the public schools.

“What is the new normal after the pandemic gonna be? What are people’s concerns gonna be and will they feel safe riding public transportation on a full bus?

“I’m hoping.”