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Life with COVID-19: Blacksburg Transit prepares for return of Virginia Tech students

Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 4:50 AM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Soon, Virginia Tech students will be back on campus. Along with changes on campus, there will be changes to public transportation.

From masks to safety barriers, Blacksburg Transit has been closely watching COVID-19 and working to ensure the long-term safety of its riders and drivers.

While the wheels on the bus go round and round, COVID-19 has caused ridership to go up and down.

“We changed from running about 32-36 buses per day to about 8-10 per day,” Fiona Rhodes, program director for Blacksburg Transit, said.

The numbers dropped to their summer levels in early spring for one key reason.

"Students make up about 90% of our riders."

Back in March, Virginia Tech students left for spring break and never came back, but when they’re allowed to return, there will be some changes to public transportation.

Plexiglass barriers were installed around the driver’s seat, masks are required for all passengers and drivers, and buses are cleaned multiple times a day.

“Probably the biggest question we’ve had so far is how many people are we going to carry in the fall?” Rhodes explained.

And the truth is, they don’t know yet.

“We know that our current passenger limits of 9 per bus aren’t realistic once fall resumes,” she said.

They plan to run the same routes at the same frequency as they did last year. And they’ll send out extra buses if the demand warrants it.

“We’re not going to be standing room only,” Rhodes said. “It’ll be more reasonable.”

Blacksburg Transit is constantly running any protocol changes by the New River Health District.

“One of the things that we’ve learned from the health department is that so long as you’re limiting your exposure [to] 15 minutes or less in that close proximity, then that greatly lessens your chances of exposure,” Rhodes said, adding that most BT trips are less than 10 minutes.

The longevity of COVID-19 is unknown, but Blacksburg Transit is trying to make plans anyway. However, those plans are subject to change at any time.

“We’re keeping tabs on the changes, what the governor is stating and also working really closely with the health department,” Rhodes said.

Public transportation is a vital part of any town’s infrastructure.

“It helps everyone get around, whether it’s to school, to work, to the grocery store, it’s an integral part of everyone’s lives,” she said.

“So public transportation... not going away anytime soon?” WDBJ7′s Katey Roshetko asked.

“Never,” Rhodes laughed.

While COVID-19 forced many businesses to let go of their employees, Blacksburg Transit had fired zero. Many drivers were part time already and took their summer leave early, but BT was able to keep everything fully staffed.

Copyright 2020 WDBJ. All rights reserved.

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