Ridership has declined sharply on Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) buses this year, as the pandemic’s impact on public transit authorities nationwide trickles down to the Island, forcing sharp cutbacks on routes amid falling revenues. 

The VTA annual report shows that 894,055 people rode Island buses in fiscal year 2020, compared with more than 1.3 million the previous year, a nearly 32 per cent decrease. Declines in the VTA’s on-demand service for people with disabilities also saw a 35 per cent decrease.

The declines in revenue and ridership are unprecedented for the state-funded bus transit agency, which normally sees dramatic seasonal fluctuations, according to VTA administrator Angie Gompert. In an interview with the Gazette last week, Ms. Gompert said the pandemic, as well as subtler factors, caused the staggering drop and increased costs, leaving unanswered questions about the future of the transit agency and its funding. 

“Ridership has seen a deep, deep decrease from our normal operations,” Ms. Gompert said. “These are numbers we haven’t seen in 15 or 16 years.”

Broken down by month, the decline is striking, Ms. Gompert said.

In March, when the first pandemic lockdown restrictions began, the VTA carried 16,042 riders — a 48 per cent decrease from the same period past year. By April, ridership had dropped by 84 per cent, hitting a record low of 6,971 passengers in a single month. The numbers remained similarly low throughout the summer.

“This was not even close to our standard summer,” Ms. Gompert said, pointing to the effects of a shrunken seasonal workforce and fewer day trippers on Island bus routes. 

Revenues followed suit, she said. 

In FY20, VTA buses saw a revenue drop of roughly 26 per cent — or $426,460 — from 2019, according to the report. The VTA on-demand shuttle also saw a $12,000 decrease, with farebox revenues 37 per cent lower than the year before. Most of the loss occurred over the summer, when the agency typically brings in two-thirds of its annual revenue from ridership, Ms. Gompert said. 

Partially at the behest of the towns, the VTA also reduced its in-season service last spring and summer, curtailing routes and further affecting the bottom line, Ms. Gompert said. According to the report, the agency saw a 26 per cent decrease in the number of vehicle miles covered by buses this year and a 22 per cent decrease in the number of vehicle hours.

“Because we did service modifications that also impacted the ridership and a revenue stream . . . Those numbers are going to be hard to achieve for us for years to come,” she said, noting that transit systems across the commonwealth suffered similar 2020 deficits.

And while fares have remained steady, operating costs have also climbed over the past year, as a confluence of fewer riders and incremental wage increases for bus drivers have driven up the cost to operate each passenger trip by almost 50 per cent, Ms. Gompert said. In 2019, 35.5 per cent of operating costs were covered by fare revenues, while in 2020 the number fell to 25.7 per cent, the annual report shows.

And while Ms. Gompert cited the pandemic as a central factor, the decreases are also part of a broader, three-year trend of reduced ridership at the VTA, which had begun to feel the effects of transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft on the Island transportation market.

“You can really look at our ridership losses prior to the pandemic and look at the TNC data, and you add those two numbers together and that’s what we used to have for ridership,” said Ms. Gompert. “We have a very good transit system here, but with the impacts of the TNCs . . . we have been reducing and trimming.”

Ms. Gompert pointed to a drop in annual ridership of about 200,000 between 2017 and 2019. More changes could follow as the TNC market continues to grow, she said.

Falling ridership could also affect state funding down the line, Ms. Gompert said. Each year the agency receives about $1.6 million in funding from the state, calculated based on the Island’s population size, service area and ridership. Though the impact of the pandemic on the funding is unclear at the moment, keeping ridership up will be important, Ms. Gompert said. 

Since the start of the pandemic the VTA has received one installment of $1.4 million in federal CARES Act monies to fill the budgetary gaps, most of which will be exhausted by the end of the fiscal year, Ms. Gompert said. Another installment is set to arrive this spring, but the effects of the deficits will likely long outlast the next budget cycle. 

“After the pandemic, I think it’s going to take us a while to rebound,” she said. “We used the CARES funding to balance the budget and we’ll be doing that I would say, easily for the next two to three years.”

But as spring approaches, Ms. Gompert said the conversation has quickly turned to solutions, beginning with the launch of the agency’s Love VTA campaign to boost ridership. 

In February, the VTA is offering free rides for school kids and families during vacation week. In April free rides will be offered to the Islandwide beach cleanup program in honor of Earth Day. The VTA will also be offering free rides to the hospital for any resident getting vaccinated from now until May 14.

“There’s a lot of things we’re doing to try to stir up ridership and just try to get people back on,” Ms. Gompert said. “Transit is still essential for the economic livelihood of a community . . . We’re trying to remind everybody that we’re here and working hard to do our part.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Gompert said she is expecting a busy summer, and said plans are in place to ramp up bus and van service beginning in April. “I expect us to be significantly busier than we were last year for a longer period of time,” she said of summer rider projections. “We’ll be ready for that.”

But the optimism is measured as concerns abound over the future of a transit system that has been fundamentally altered this year.

“I don’t know what the appetite for transit is, not just in our region but in other regions too,” Ms. Gompert said. “I’m hopeful that we can within five years get back to where we were . . . [but] will we get back to carrying 1.4 million people a year, I’m not sure.”