GoBus stays on the road amid COVID-19

Hocking Athens Perry Community Action (HAPCAP) is a community action agency based in Athens, Ohio, charged with fighting poverty and promoting self-sufficiency in the Southeast regions of the state. HAPCAP oversees Head Start programs and a 10-county regional food bank, as well as Meals on Wheels. The agency also provides home repairs for individuals struggling financially.

The HAPCAP Transportation Division oversees and coordinates four public programs for all community members and those in need that ensure safe, reliable and affordable bus and coach transportation. 

HAPCAP operates with a staff of three that includes Administrator Claudia Bashaw, GoBus Manager Rudi Beutner and Senior Transportation Clerk Rachael Mace, who manages the customer service hotline.

A GoBus makes a stop at Ohio University.

“Unlike in other states, (the Ohio Department of Transportation) cannot directly administer its transportation programs,” said HAPCAP Transportation Services Coordinator Carolyn Conley “It instead assigns responsibility to a county, municipality, local government agency or nonprofit organization such as HAPCAP.”

In addition to its five routes, HAPCAP ensures transportation to a host of cities statewide through daily and multiple connections to and from Athens, Columbus, Cincinnati, Marietta, Van Wert and into the Cleveland area, as well as one stop in West Virginia.

“Occasionally, during the academic year, we will add extra buses to an evening schedule to accommodate more demand,” Conley said. “We will run these extra buses as more express service while keeping one bus running the normal service to every stop at the scheduled times.”

A unique position

Though unusual for a small nonprofit organization, as an ODOT-designated grantee through the city of Athens, HAPCAP is in a unique position to administer the federally funded Ohio Rural Intercity Bus Program 5311(f).

Branded in Ohio as GoBus, this service connects rural residents to communities and cities throughout the state, as well as major hubs to the rest of the country. GoBus launched in 2010, when Ohio and several other states came onboard with 5311(f) grants to take up the slack after Greyhound dropped many of its rural routes. 

GoBus outsources all over-the-road and maintenance operations to independent bus coach operators. HAPCAP partners with Barons Bus in Cleveland, Ohio, and Miller Transportation in Louisville, Kentucky, to run its fleet of eight GoBus coaches. Barons Bus provides two MCI J4500s for the service. Miller Transportation runs six Prevost H345s.

It is safe to say GoBus has operated flawlessly since its inception — until March 2020, when COVID 19 arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

Essential service

“The coronavirus took everyone by surprise,” Bashaw said. “Our only concern was to see to the safety and health of our drivers and passengers, and still provide essential service. We worked fast and furiously to implement our protocols. We relied on the advice from our operation managers and feedback from our drivers and passengers.”

The shutdown came during spring break for most colleges and universities across the country, which is typically an extremely busy time for bus and coach operators.

 “The institutions in our area were very quick to respond,” said Bashaw, “because we are so strongly associated with (them).

“Our small GoBus staff was fielding calls almost exclusively for refunds and rescheduling trips,”  she said. “We implemented a quick solution, aside from our usual refund and reissue policy, that allowed customers refunds for immediate trips they simply could not make under the circumstances.” 

“Because the universities nationwide were quick to respond, and we’re so heavily aligned with Ohio University in Athens, when students did not return from spring break, I think we realized the urgency sooner than others,” Conley said. “This was around the first of March, and we knew then this was serious and we needed to react. (We were) thankful to have the school as our beacon indicating we needed to react.”

Basic protocols

GoBus began by addressing the basic protocols for sanitation and cleaning the buses before turning to the issues of crowd sizing and the spread of the virus.

 “We reduced our capacity by half to give passengers their necessary space and keep our drivers safe,” Bashaw said. “Our larger coaches typically carry 56 passengers, and filling them was never a problem.”

Passengers board a GoBus at a stop in Ohio in 2018.

Of course, as the rest of the industry was learning, as well, such preventative measures were threatening companies’ sustainability and the available workforce.

“At this point, we were forced to reduce our number of routes,” Bashaw said. “Many were round trips twice a day, which we reduced to one per day to ensure basic service to the folks who rely on GoBus.”

As of June 1, GoBus was back running all schedules as normal while maintaining the reduced capacity.

“We were all very pleased to have not halted service altogether,” Conley said. ”Though ridership is still way down, HAPCAP and GoBus both understand the importance of people needing to travel and get around, so we are doing our very best to keep going.”

Half capacity

Currently, GoBus is continuing to operate at half capacity, requesting passengers wear face coverings as they board. As it stands, the first two rows of seats remain empty to allow social distancing between passengers and drivers.

“While we are not requiring masks, most passengers understand where we’re coming from,” Bashaw said. “We debated the issue to mandate their use and ultimately determined on top of everything else, it is not fair to our drivers that we put them in the position of playing police.”

That said, GoBus strongly encourages passengers to wear masks and reports that most are complying. 

As COVID-19 rages on, HAPCAP and GoBus vow to continue adjusting and adapting protocols as necessary to protect riders and drivers and stay on the road.

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