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By Jorge Casuso
October 31, 2022 -- Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus (BBB) has hit a major hump in its efforts to return ridership to levels reached before the coronavirus shutdown, according to a report released last week.
During the past fiscal year that ended June 30, the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant delayed the return of Santa Monica College (SMC) students, who can ride the BBB for free.
It also led to an exodus of drivers during a nationwide labor shortage that left the transit agency 46 motorcoach operators short, according to the report.
As a result, the 22.3 million passenger miles traveled in Fiscal Year 2021-22 was less than half the 45.5 million miles traveled in 2019, before the coronavirus shutdown two-and-a-half years ago.
And while service levels have been restored to 81 percent of pre-pandemic levels, the BBB has had problems getting over the hump, according to the report.
When the past fiscal year started in July 2021, the agency was optimistic it could reach "service restoration and ridership recovery goals," transit officials wrote in the report.
"However, the pandemic and its impacts continued to delay those plans."
The first troubling sign was the low in-person attendance at SMC during last year's fall semester, followed by the rapid spread of the highly-contagious but far less serious Omicron strain in December.
"The high levels of community transmission ultimately led to an unprecedented level of daily canceled service due to staff time off and quarantine protocols," the report said.
In mid-January, as much as 24 percent of service was canceled daily, a dramatic jump from the daily average of 1 to 2 percent before the coronavirus shutdown.
The agency also had problems retaining drivers during the past fiscal year, with three leaving the job for every two who completed training, according to the report.
Despite a recruitment push that offered new drivers higher starting wages, by the end of the fiscal year the BBB was short 46 drivers, although "the number of open positions has stabilized and is no longer increasing."
The report notes that "despite the reduced service levels," ridership increased 26 percent year over year to 6.3 million in the fiscal year that ended in June, up from 5 million the previous fiscal year.
Customers also successfully shifted "away from utilizing cash" and enrollment quadrupled in the reduced fare program, which offers as many as 20 free rides a month, the report said.
Transactions using contactless TAP and mobile ticketing also increased, reaching 84 percent of all boardings at the end of the past fiscal year.
Still, the agency's efforts to abolish cash fares failed after two-thirds of customers surveyed opposed a cashless system, pressuring the City Council to change course ("Big Blue Bus to Take Cash Again," April 14, 2022).
The BBB also added 18 new battery electric buses and their on-site charging stations, bringing the total number of zero emission buses to 19, or about 10 percent of the fleet.
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