Concerned about crowding on buses, Vineyard Transit Authority drivers presented the VTA advisory board with a petition last week asking for better safety protocols, including limiting the number of passengers carried at one time.

“For the past couple of months, the buses have not been safe,” said bus driver Jason Chalifoux, who head the local chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents VTA drivers. “August is coming and it is only going to get busier,” he added.

But VTA administrator Angela Grant said federal laws that prohibit discrimination on public transit means no passengers can be turned away until the bus is completely full.

“We can’t stop people from getting on a public bus with the rules and regulations we have to follow,” she said.

Ridership is running at 22 per cent of normal levels, but beginning to increase as the summer kicks into gear, Ms. Grant said at the monthly advisory board meeting. She said the VTA carried 40,504 passengers through the month of June, compared with 172,000 passengers for the same period last year.

Crowding has not been a problem on the majority of routes, Ms. Grant said. The exceptions are Routes 1, 10 and 13, all down-Island routes which tend to carry tourists and workers. She said Route 13 is carrying about 1,100 people each day and fluctuates between running empty and bursts of activity, often on weekends and at the start and end of the work day.

In June, the VTA developed standards for ridership and crowding, which are posted on their website. A 40-foot bus can hold a maximum of 57 passengers, with a recommended load of 22 passengers to account for social distancing, according to the website. Capacity varies based on bus size.

But drivers at the meeting said they were frustrated with the protocol.

“We are asking for there to be limits, not just recommendations,” said driver Rich Townes.

Citing the Civil Rights Act, Ms. Grant said limiting crowd size is beyond her jurisdiction as administrator.

“As a public agency depending on federal dollars, we have a responsibility . . . we still need to take people on the public bus, unless the bus is full,” she said, adding: “Sometimes on certain routes, in particular the Route 13, the bus is going to get crowded. Hands down.”

Members of the advisory board expressed frustration with the situation.

“I wish there was a simpler way to empower the drivers,” said board member Mark Snider. “I just think we aren’t doing much. I am not blaming anybody, it’s just a problem.”

Ms. Grant said she has taken a proactive approach to safety protocols as far as she can. Masks are required on all buses. Plastic barriers separate drivers from passengers. Earlier in the year, the VTA stopped collecting fares to cut down on contact, but reintroduced routine fare collection on July 1. She also said the VTA is working to develop a system to inform the public of the current crowding level of buses, for passengers to make their own decisions regarding safety.

In other business, the advisory board reviewed VTA total ridership statistics to close out the fiscal year, which ended on July 1. Total ridership for the year was 890,783 passengers on about 209,000 trips, Ms. Grant said, down 31.75 per cent over fiscal year 2019. Ms. Grant said the VTA has not seen a six-digit total decline in ridership in more than a decade.

Corrected from an earlier version, which misquoted Ms. Grant, suggesting ridership has been declining for more than a decade. That is not the case and not what Ms. Grant said at the meeting.