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Duluth Transportation Authority continues to operate without fares, but outlook improving

Mid-July figures to bring some return to normalcy, General Manager Phil Pumphrey said. Meanwhile, the DTA has been supported by CARES Act funding.

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Duluth Transit Authority's new green colored buses will make their debut July 19 as part of the free downtown circulator the DuLooper. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

It seemed like a subtle change when the Duluth Transit Authority began to board passengers at the rear door of its buses.

It was done in the name of safety during the onset this spring of the COVID-19 pandemic β€” to allow bus drivers and passengers to avoid close contact with one another.

But rear boarding circumvents the fare boxes, and the DTA has been running without fares now for more than 10 weeks.

"It is a huge challenge," DTA General Manager Phil Pumphrey said. "We're doing everything we can to promote the safety and health of the public transit system for our customers and drivers, but it’s an uncertain time to all of a sudden go free fare for months and to change drastically the operating of our business."

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Duluth Transit Authority General Manager Phil Pumphrey speaks during a news conference about the COVID-19 pandemic in March. (File / News Tribune)

Lately, though, things are starting to look up. The announcement that the University of Minnesota Duluth would bring students to campus in the fall is one boon. UPASS ridership, serving UMD, the College of St. Scholastica, Lake Superior College and the University of Wisconsin-Superior, made up 18% of total ridership in 2019.

Additionally, the DTA is expecting to be back to full service by July 19, when its free downtown circulator, DuLooper, returns with new green buses.

The News Tribune spoke with Pumphrey about the state of the DTA, how it was able to avoid layoffs, and what's still hurting when it comes to public transit in the city.

At its lowest ebb during the pandemic, Pumphrey explained ridership on DTA buses dipped 43%, with the number of routes in operation reaching down into the 40% range. Currently, the DTA has about 70%-75% of its ridership back and 83% of its routes. The majority of passengers are wearing masks, Pumphrey said.

The DTA has been running without fares for more than 10 weeks.

"Our fare box revenue, all told, from the universities and regular customers, is about $200,000 per month, or $2.4 million per year," Pumphrey said this week. "That just all evaporated."

Thanks to federal rescue funding via the CARES Act totaling $7.6 million funneled through Minnesota and Wisconsin, the DTA has been able to avoid layoffs.

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The new buses are equipped with eight security cameras to protect drivers and passengers. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

"That is roughly three years of apportionment," Pumphrey said. "It was specifically given to us to cover expenses related to COVID-19 and loss of revenue."

The DTA board of directors voted to use about 95% of the funding for operations.

"We took a very conservative viewpoint on how to use this money," Pumphrey said. "Operations is the most important thing we do."

Come mid-July, the DTA will begin to take fares again, but not before its buses have barriers installed between drivers and boarding passengers.

The DTA already requires its drivers to wear a face covering, but Pumphrey described the barriers as a sort of interior car door separating drivers and passengers. To date, the DTA said there has been no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 among drivers.

The new green buses were grant-funded at $487,000 each and programmed prior to COVID-19 as part of the DTA's ongoing replenishment of its fleet. Three new green diesel buses are among six new 40-foot buses that will be incorporated onto routes.

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Duluth Transit Authority will add new green colored buses to the free downtown circulator the DuLooper on July 19. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Ongoing casualties of COVID-19 are the STRIDE service for people with disabilities and the Port Town Trolley service that runs free between downtown and Canal Park.

STRIDE ridership is down. A service that normally operates eight vans was down to two for many weeks. Only recently, a third STRIDE bus was brought back into service.

The return of trolleys will depend on having the drivers to operate the service.

During COVID-19, the DTA lost some drivers to retirement, as well as health and child-care considerations. Because licensing services through the state's Driver and Vehicle Services were shut down, the DTA hasn't been able to bring on new drivers. A class of 10 new drivers just began training, Pumphrey said.

"We expect they'll graduate July 10," Pumphrey said.

Finally, Pumphrey was asked about the seven electric buses that have been in circulation for 17 months. Pumphrey said only two of the electrics are in circulation as the manufacturer, Proterra, works on software issues related to the buses. The Proterras were federally funded as part of a program testing the buses and batteries on Duluth's cold and hills.

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An ongoing study of the buses will yield a report about their effectiveness at some point in the near future, he said.

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