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In recent years, Connecticut saw some record-shattering public transportation ridership. Innovations like CTfastrak and the CTrail Hartford Line brought thousands of riders along new routes across and outside the state, and further transit expansion was anticipated in the Lamont administration. 

However, as with most things touched by the coronavirus pandemic, Connecticut’s public transportation was crippled by stay-at-home orders and the negative perception of being in a confined space with other riders. 

Now, slowly but steadily, the transit system is making a comeback. But will it ever climb again to the booming heights Connecticut enjoyed pre-pandemic?

“That’s the million dollar question,” said Richard W. Andreski, the Department of Transportation’s bureau chief for public transportation. “I think telework is here to stay, and that’s going to have a definite impact on our ridership.”

Ridership has seen a modest rebound. Rail ridership is now 20% of normal, while bus ridership is up to 60% of normal, according to Andreski. That’s a definite increase from the disastrous plummet the DOT saw in 2020, when bus and rail ridership were down by 60% and 95% respectively.

Fare revenue declined with ridership. Andreski said the DOT was only able to avoid service cuts and interruptions thanks to federal relief like the CARES Act. The system staved off cuts to local bus service.

“The good news is that the federal funding should allow us to continue to operate services for the next few years,” Andreski said, noting that the department will need to make adjustments as ridership changes because of COVID-19.

But DOT wants its riders back, and it’s taking steps to do that. Voice-activated ticket vending machines are expected to arrive by 2022 to limit surface contact and the Lamont administration recently announced plans to create an expanded university transit pass program that will include private institutions. 

Kristina Vakham/CTNewsJunkie photo

But these innovations won’t be enough if riders don’t feel safe returning to public transportation because of COVID-19, Andreski said.

“Ultimately, I think what will bring riders back is the vaccine,” he explained.

Even with the vaccine and safety protocols, CTrides Senior Director of Business Development and Program Services Larry Filler said it’s difficult to tell if the pre-COVID commute will ever go back to the way it was before. The pandemic showed employers the benefits of keeping their employees remote, and some big companies have explored eliminating their offices entirely. 

Additionally, in a survey conducted by CTDOT in 2020, 50% of respondents said they were “not at all uncomfortable” at the idea of taking the bus and 44% were uncomfortable taking the train. 

“The survey was conducted before the vaccines became a reality, but I think it’s safe to say that there will be more employees working from home than before the pandemic, assuming employers go along with that,” Filler said.

Filler said that as of now, no employers have stopped working with CTrides — which partners with companies to help their employees’ commutes — because of the pandemic. Part of that is because of partner companies that employ essential workers who need to commute to work.

State transportation officials believe they’ve taken the COVID-19 safety measures necessary to protect those commuters. Andreski said the system maintained full bus service to provide room for social distancing throughout the pandemic. It also strictly requires riders to mask up.

But others, like bus drivers and rail operators, think the DOT could do more. They say that ensuring drivers are safe will assure riders that they are safe, too, and encourage them to come back.

“There’s a lot of mental stress,” said Artan Martinaj, business manager of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 425 in Hartford. A bus driver, Martinaj explained that he’s scared of bringing COVID-19 home to his family and his 80-year-old mother. “It’s like a nightmare that never ends.”

It’s an understandable fear: last December, Commissioner Joe Giulietti told reporters that over 100 DOT employees tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Martinaj said that Connecticut’s bus drivers have not received hazard pay, nor N95 masks. He also thinks that transit workers should receive the vaccine earlier, as they are on the front lines and coming into contact with hundreds of people daily. Public transit workers will be eligible for the vaccine after Phase 1b ends.

“We’re carrying doctors and nurses. We’re heroes carrying heroes. We are front-liners carrying all of those people to their destinations,” Martinaj said.

Though slowly rising, it’s unclear what definitively will boost ridership. The DOT is set to replicate its ridership survey this year, and Andreski said the transit system will most likely offer promotions as incentives for return. 

For now, it is exploring new opportunities like express services, and Andreski foresees public transit will play a part in returning to normalcy in a post-COVID world.

“We’re hedging until we know more about the future,” Andreski said. “For many years, there’s been issues that emerge. We’ve always overcome [them].”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Coverage of the 2020 Multimodal and Transit Summit, as well as a follow-up series on related transportation issues, is being partially underwritten by the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress.

Underwriting is funding for journalism that will be reported and produced independently, without prior review by the funder before publication.