Area transit operators say the summer COVID surge will delay the wider return to work that they were counting on to boost ridership this fall, even though OmniRide still plans to expand its service closer to pre-pandemic levels by the end of September.
At last week’s Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission meeting, heads of Virginia Railway Express and OmniRide said they had revised projections for fall trips down slightly from before the latest spike in cases that pushed the District of Columbia to reinstitute its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. That potentially affects office reopening plans for some of the Prince William area’s commuters.
But OmniRide is moving ahead with a plan to expand service on a number of commuter lines that were cut back after the pandemic began.
On Sept. 27, the service plans to add new trips on eight different routes between the inner Washington core and Dale City, Gainesville, Haymarket, Lake Ridge and Montclair. One new westbound trip will also be scheduled on the East-West Express. The operator is planning to reduce service on two Manassas-area routes, but all told the service changes represent the biggest increase in commuter service since the pandemic reduced ridership dramatically.
While local OmniRide trips have remained relatively steady over the past year, commuter ridership has more than doubled since January, growing from just under 21,000 “OmniRide Express” rides to more than 56,000 rides in July. That number is still well below the 161,000 Express rides in July 2019, but Executive Director Bob Schneider said the agency had been planning on a steady increase through the end of summer and fall. Now, because of COVID’s resurgence delaying some return-to-work plans, he’s hoping for more modest bumps.
“Despite the rising Delta variant, our ridership has remained steady throughout August, which is a good sign,” he told the PRTC commissioners last week. “We had a really nice climb in June and July. We thought August was going to be kind of a watershed point for us, but as we’ve all discovered things are very much in a static mode.”
VRE Chief Executive Officer Rich Dalton said the rail service was anticipating a similar holding pattern after trip increases this year. VRE saw its biggest monthly ridership increase since the pandemic started in June, jumping from 35,232 trips in May to 49,437.
In July, the agency saw another jump to over 54,000 rides, but weekly ridership stayed flat and even dipped slightly in early August. Some of that drop was probably related to severe weather, but Dalton agreed that the fall didn’t seem as promising as it once did, when many expected the return of school to prompt employers to invite workers back in bigger numbers.
Ridership is still down about 85% compared to pre-COVID, Dalton said. “We anticipate ridership to continue to increase post-Labor Day but … at a slower pace than we previously anticipated.”
For OmniRide to move forward with the full slate of planned service increases, it will have to contend with the same bus driver shortage that has plagued school divisions locally and around the country.
Keolis, OmniRide’s operating company, is still looking to hire five new drivers to fully staff the service expansion. Keolis General Manager Kim Murdock said the company had five drivers in training and was “about to hire” five others, but that recruitment hadn’t been easy.
“Like most transit agencies, we are looking for bus drivers and having a hard time finding them. On my way here I passed Gar-Field [High School] and they got this big school bus with an ad on it saying ‘Looking for bus drivers.’ We’re competing with all the transit agencies in the area for the same pool of candidates,” she told the board.
Murdock said that an internal anonymous survey found that about 85% of OmniRide’s drivers and technicians had received the COVID-19 vaccine and about 90% of the agency’s administrative staff had done so as well. Schneider said the company had some unique challenges in hiring, particularly on commuter routes where drivers work the morning and afternoon rush hours but aren’t on the clock in between.
Because of the company’s seniority system for drivers, new hires got the last pick in terms of routes.
“We had a labor shortage prior to COVID in the transit industry,” Schneider said. “We have very big peaks, so you might start your morning at 5 [a.m.] and work for … 3½ hours and have a five-hour gap in between, and then finish your day. So that means you might have to spend 12-14 hours to earn eight hours of pay. So that’s a big challenge and it’s really hard for some people to do that.”