BSOOB officials are looking for a better year ahead after a decline in ridership by about 50 percent due to the pandemic. One bright note is that the agency is expecting a dozen new vehicles this year, including four buses, two of which have arrived, and eight trolleys. Courtesy Photo/BSOOB

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — When people are working or studying remotely, or have become unemployed in this pandemic, they aren’t taking the bus — or aren’t doing so as often.

And that has meant a striking decrease in ridership for BSOOB, the three-community transit company that provides passenger bus services in and around Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach, up to Portland, and summer trolley services.

“Ridership is down 50 percent,” BSOOB Executive Director Tony Scavuzzo told the Old Orchard Beach Town Council in a presentation Jan. 5.

According to polling by the advocacy-based nonprofit called TransitCenter, many people nationwide are riding less often, but are not abandoning transit altogether. Overall transit ridership declined about 75 percent in the second quarter of 2020, according to polling by TransitCenter, but the number of people who ride has not fallen so steeply. Among survey respondents, TransitCenter said the share of people who say they ride transit at least a few times per week fell much less — 36 percent, suggesting people may now be riding sporadically, not avoiding transit altogether.

Scavuzzo said ridership on the buses that go to Portland, making several stops in the city, is down to about 15 to 20 people, rather than the usual 90 per day prior to the pandemic — and are mostly employees of Maine Medical Center.

“We’re ready for people to go back to work,” he said.

BSOOB operates on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year. Scavuzzo said in fiscal year 2019, there were 366,527 riders, the most ever; in fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, ridership was down 27 percent, to 267,882 riders. He said he expects ridership to decrease even more by the end of this fiscal year.

“People are not going to work, not going to school or travelling as they were (pre-pandemic),” said Scavuzzo. “That means fare recovery is down 50 percent. CARES Act funding is keeping us whole and solvent for the short term.”

BSOOB collected $527,000 in fares in fiscal year 2019; $367,029 in fiscal year 2020, and projects it will collect $60,000 for the current fiscal year.

Trolley ridership was down 14 percent in fiscal year 2020, at 122,972 riders, and Scavuzzo projects 40,000 riders for the current fiscal year. Fares were down 9 percent in fiscal year 2020, at $128,539; BSOOB projects $60,000 in fares for the current fiscal year.

Recognizing the impact of the pandemic, Scavuzzo said the agency, working with PACTS — the Greater Portland Council of Governments — forged a plan that kept municipal contributions to BSOOB flat, at $165,000 for each community, through the end of this fiscal year.

BSOOB plans to seek $200,000 from each of the three communities, for a total of $600,000, for the coming fiscal year. “The request will increase to begin to fund our organization in a more modern and healthy manner as well as begin to prepare for a post CARES Act environment,” said Scavuzzo.

In an email, Scavuzzo said BSOOB received $618,674 of local Phase 1 CARES Act support for February through June 2020, and expects more.

“We are projected to receive $359,091 for local Phase 2 CARES Act allocation (July through December 2020),” he said. ” This support does not replace lost fare and fare related revenue directly, rather covering the gap that has been created with loss of ridership to pay our monthly expenses. The local plan through our municipal planning organization (PACTS) is to have this support be present into 2022 to create as long a bridge as possible for ridership to return to a new normal baseline that can be planned for accordingly for all seven Portland area transit providers.”

He said the agency is working hard to boost ridership.

“We have done everything in our power to return ridership in a pandemic state including implementing contactless fare payments and daily vehicle sanitation using electrostatic disinfectant sprayers and foggers to ensure complete disinfectant coverage in preparation for each day of service,” he said. “We have installed hand sanitizer on board for public use, are physically distancing on board, have installed driver partitions for operator safety and require masks to ride. Until we return to a more predictable societal routine, we will not see what the expected potential of our recent evolution and updates will truly be. Safe, clean, reliable and affordable local public transportation for all continues to be our mission statement and daily goal.”

There is some good news — new buses and trolleys are coming — and two of the buses, which will be utilized on the turnpike, have already arrived. In all, 12 vehicles are expected, including eight trolleys and  four buses, two of which are electric.

Scavuzzo noted most of the trolleys the agency has are 20 years old, and the new ones won’t come at a cost to the municipalities.

“We’re hoping for a normal summer,” Scavuzzo told the OOB Town Council. “Extended COVID-19 will mean a tough situation in the future.”

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