Despite Current ‘Holding Pattern,’ OC Prepping Bus, Tram Operations For Season

Despite Current ‘Holding Pattern,’ OC Prepping Bus, Tram Operations For Season
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — While a return date to full operation of the resort’s municipal bus service and Boardwalk tram service remains much in doubt, steps are being taken to hit the ground running when restrictions related to the ongoing pandemic are eased.

While the season has changed to spring, the town’s municipal bus service remains on a limited winter schedule because of the restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Behind the scenes, however, resort transit officials are working to prepare for what hopefully will be a summer season at some point including the hiring, screening and training of drivers and proactive steps to ensure social distancing directives are observed for drivers and passengers, whatever that may look like in the new normal.

During a Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday, Public Works Director Hal Adkins said despite the current restrictions, the transit department is preparing for time when some of the restrictions are eased for the municipal bus and Boardwalk tram operations.

“We’ll continue with the winter schedule until there are changes in the state restrictions or our own restrictions,” he said. “At some point, we have to be ready for the next stage from a logistical standpoint. There are certain things we have to complete, but we’re still in a holding pattern.”

Adkins said it remains uncertain just when some of the restrictions are eased and the transit operations can begin to ramp up for an eventual summer season.

“We have to do screening, drug testing, get the requisite number of hours on buses for new drivers and other things like that,” he said. “If we don’t do all of those things in anticipation of reopening at some point, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We are setting a goal to be ready by May 15 however this plays out. Whether we open by May 15 or Memorial Day or June 15, we will be ready.”

Mayor Rick Meehan agreed it was appropriate to move forward as if the summer season was going to be normal, with the understanding there will likely be some phasing in terms of easing the restrictions.

“There are a lot of unknowns at this point,” he said. “We haven’t had to deal with it today, but there will be a time when we do have to deal with it. We really need to be prepared.”

Adkins pointed out there are budget issues to consider. Even if there a return to some semblance of normal at some point, the town has already lost Easter weekend and Springfest with big weekends still much in doubt. Last week, the Mayor and Council endorsed a proposed Plan B fiscal year 2021 budget includes expected revenue losses, but there are still goals to meet even under that reduced spending plan.

“Even with the current situation, the budget under Plan B that you all approved last week still calls for $1 million in revenue from the transit system,” said Adkins. “If we don’t allow standers, or if we allow sitters only with social distancing, we could slowly bleed to death.”

Even when the restrictions are eased, there will still likely be some phased in social distancing requirements, including limitations on the number of passengers allowed, said Adkins.

“Maybe standing won’t be permitted,” he said. “Standing people block the way for others using the bus and there are just more interactions in terms of the social distancing requirements. Even with sitting passengers, there might have to be some social distancing rules in place. It might be hard to run at full capacity, at least when we first get up and running.”

Meehan said limiting the number of passengers and discouraging people from using the bus, at least in the short term, runs counter to the town’s policy in recent years.

“It’s ironic we’ve been working for years to get people out of their cars and onto the bus,” he said. “Now, it might be the opposite. A lot of people might feel safer in their cars.”

Meanwhile, the transportation division continues to take steps to ensure the safety of drivers and riders.

“Our drivers are wearing masks for the most part,” said Transportation Director Mark Rickards. “They are very familiar with our customers during the offseason and the customers are used to using the back door to avoid interaction.”

Meehan said that’s a good policy that should be maintained going forward.

“I really do think we should make it mandatory for the drivers to wear masks,” he said. “It is for their safety first and foremost, but it’s also for the public perception that we’re doing everything we can. I think that’s a good policy.”

Operations Manager Steve Bartlett said the public can rest assured the municipal buses are safe.

“The buses are cleaner than when they arrived from the factory,” he said. “They are cleaned from end to end and top to bottom at least twice a day including every surface. We are doing everything we can to keep the entire fleet clean.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.