Friday, September 18, 2020
Mountain Rides Sees Silver Linings in the Pandemic
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Mountain Rides test drove a 40-foot heavy duty zero emission battery-operated New Flyer bus in 2018.
   
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

COVID GRAPH BY PAUL RIES

Mountain Rides bus service saw its ridership drop to 10 percent of normal at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. But Director Wally Morgus and his sidekick Kim MacPherson are talking about  silver linings from the pandemic, nevertheless.

For starters, they were able to get a grant to make bus service free as far south as Bellevue. They’re getting another grant for a phone app that will let passengers see where their bus is in real time. And then there’s the opportunity to convert its fleet to electric, saving tons of CO2 from being pumped into the atmosphere.

 
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Mechanic Carlos Tellez showed the battery pack in the rear of New Flyer’s electric bus.
 

“These silver linings in this pandemic…We’re humbled by them and thankful,” said MacPherson.

The app, which Mountain Rides hopes to have in place by Oct. 1, will send real-time alerts letting riders know where their bus is and when it will arrive at their bus stop. They’ll also be able to tell how many passengers are aboard.

The app will also save Mountain Rides countless hours in managing schedules back at the office

The service costs $285,000; and comes with a service fee of $27,000 a year. Mountain Rides hopes to get the Idaho Transportation Department to fund 100 percent of the expenses through a grant.

 
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Idaho reported 221 new cases of coronavirus on Monday for a statewide total of 32,088. Twin Falls County reported 12 new cases for a total of 1,685 since the pandemic began. Blaine County reported one new case for 606 total.
 

“We have an app now but it’s not as good as the one we’ll get this fall,” said Morgus.

Mountain Rides is using a $2.45 million Low-No Emissions grant from the Federal Transit Administration to purchase up to 12 electric buses. It’s also applying a $1.75 million settlement awarded from the 2015 settlement questioning the legitimacy of Volkswagen’s emissions testing, meaning no taxpayer dollars will be spent.

“We got our hand up early and kept it up,” said Morgus. The bus company has continued to apply for grants and has a good chance of landing some, as few other Idaho transportation companies have chosen to pursue them during the pandemic.

Mountain Rides hopes to get its first four e-buses in May or June 2021 from New Flyer of America, a St. Cloud, Minn., bus manufacturer. It hopes to get at least 14 more within seven years.

“Each electric bus will eliminate 140 tons of CO2 emissions, which means cleaner air, which means we’re doing our part to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Morgus said.

The buses, which can seat 35 passengers each, cost $780,000 each, compared with $435,000 for a diesel bus. Each are expected to save between $25,000 and $40,000 in fuel and maintenance costs per year compared with diesel buses.

“There are 7,000 parts in a diesel bus and 700 in electric buses so there’s a huge savings over the lifetime of an electric bus just in parts,” said Morgus. “Also, the electric buses are quieter, and there’s no belching.”

Charging stations will have to be installed in the Ketchum depot ahead of the buses’ arrival. They will also be installed in a depot to be built on a scant acre of land in Bellevue’s light industrial district, which Mountain Rides recently acquired with a $232,000 Federal Transit Administration grant and $45,000 from the valley’s four cities.

Ridership, which averaged a thousand riders a day before the pandemic, sank to between 10 percent and 15 percent during the height of the pandemic in March and April when valley residents were sheltering in place and not traveling to work, school or play.

It increased overall in July to about 55 percent of the previous July. But the Valley Route ridership between Bellevue and Ketchum grew to 75 percent of what it was in July 2019, growing still further to  80 percent of what it was in August 2019.

“It’s growing daily which is so exciting for us. And nationwide the studies about mass transportation have been very positive. Mass transportation—even the subways in New York City-- have not been super spreaders that people feared they might be,” said MacPherson, noting that none of Mountain Rides’ drivers have contracted the virus.

Mountain Rides kept its fleet running every half-hour during commuter hours during the beginning of the pandemic. And it stopped charging fees, in part to protect to protect bus drivers from the risk of contracting COVID while handling bus fare or having to come face to face with passengers entering the front doors to make fare.

“If you ask what we would want in a dream world, it would be a fare free system,” said Morgus. “It saves manpower and maybe it prompts someone to use the bus who didn’t use it before. We have a transient-dependent bus system in this valley that people don’t know about.  We’ve never had a day with zero riders. We have a scholarship fund financed in part by Limelight Hotel Fund to help people purchase passes. Now we don’t need those scholarships. We intend to stay fare free as long as we can—certainly throughout the next year. It’s important because using back door boarding helps keep drivers safe.”

Mountain Rides implemented other precautions early on to make bus riding as safe as it could. It installed barriers between drivers and passengers, along with signs to social distance. It restricted the number of riders on buses to 14 to allow for physical distancing and provided backup buses to cover routes when that number was exceeded, although it never had to put those to use.

The bus company installed hand santizers and asked riders to wear masks.

“Everyone was receptive,” Morgus said. “There’s been 99 percent compliance and the 1 percent who haven’t worn masks are small children with parents. We didn’t experience any of the pushback you hear about around the country. That’s been uplifting--that people are so attuned to doing the right thing. They get that along with rights come responsibilities.”

Many or the riders who continued to ride the buses in the early days of the pandemic were hospital workers, along with a few guests who remained at Sun Valley Resort. The buses also served those who couldn’t drive themselves to grocery stores, said MacPherson.

Mountain Rides purchased lunches for its drivers for the first two months of the pandemic to reward them for their role as essential workers and to help local establishments like Wrap City and Shorty’s continue to “chug along.”

Bus drivers wiped down the buses with wipes whenever there was a pause in the action and a maintenance engineer cleaned each one every time it came through the depot. And Mountain Rides purchased electrostatic cleaners—vacuum-like cleaning sprayers—for deep cleans.

“We had a hard time getting them, but we got on the list early,” Morgus said.  “Even before we had our first case of COVIDD here, we had several meetings in which we were paying attention to what was happening elsewhere. I remember at the beginning Kim brought in a map in which she pointed out that the virus was in one city and another but that there was nothing in Idaho. I said, ‘Let’s plan for it just in case.’ ”

Morgus said his crew is monitoring the situation to see if they need to bring on additional buses this fall and winter.

“One unknown is what the resort is going to look like,” he said. “We would’ve eclipsed our record of 120,000 riders last winter had the season not ended a month early due to the pandemic.”

The Galena shuttle bus, which ended its season March 1, saw its ridership grow between 8 percent and 10 percent over the previous year’s ridership of 900.

“We got great buy in and support from businesses and hotels,” Morgus said. “Nappy Neaman, who was working at the Elephant’s Perch, said the $19 season pass allowing riders to use it an unlimited number of times was the best thing we ever did.”


 

 

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