CORONAVIRUS

With no Cedar Rapids buses, small service transit toils to meet crucial needs

Neighborhood Transporation Services focuses on essential rides to work

Operations manager JJ Miller (left) and driver Bernie Prokop hang plastic sheeting Tuesday in an NTS van in Cedar Rapids
Operations manager JJ Miller (left) and driver Bernie Prokop hang plastic sheeting Tuesday in an NTS van in Cedar Rapids. Plastic sheeting was installed in the NTS buses and vans to help protect drivers and passengers from riders who may be ill. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — On the first day that Cedar Rapids Transit temporarily shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Neighborhood Transportation Service that’s expanding to help fill the most crucial voids was experiencing backlogs Wednesday.

The transportation service, known as NTS by Horizons, is adding two daytime buses to transport workers in fields deemed critical — health care, grocery stores, care facilities and convenience stores or gas stations. While NTS has been able initially to meet the demand for essential services, other callers are being turned away or put on a waitlist.

“It’s been busy there,” said Mike Barnhart, chief executive of Horizons. “We are taking lots of calls. We had to adjust the phone system so more people could answer the phones. We have met the requests for the essential services thus far and even been able to add some other rides as well.”

However, Barnhart added, “there is no way we can meet the demand for all of the employment in Cedar Rapids.”

And that doesn’t address other needs beyond getting to and from work.

The shut down of fixed-route transit in the city will negatively impact some. It can be a lifeline for those with lesser means and others without vehicles to get to medical and other appointments, workplaces including and beyond those deemed essential, and access to groceries and supplies.

“We have a lot of clients that work in positions that require them to get there on the bus because they don’t have another vehicle,” said Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady Homeless Services. “Clients getting to the store and to jobs across town are a huge issue and we still don’t have a good solution.”

She noted at least two clients lost jobs that because they don’t have a way to get there.

Cedar Rapids Transit paused service at the end of the day Tuesday through at least April 13 to limit the spread of COVID-19. The buses, which had stopped collecting fares, were becoming a social hangout, officials said in announcing the suspension of service.

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Cedar Rapids Transit provided 1.28 million rides in 2019, according to the National Transit Database. Officials said the recent ridership was down about 70 percent.

NTS typically provides curb-to-curb nighttime rides to work after the regular transit system stops. Demand for that is also picking up, Barnhart said.

To schedule a ride with NTS, residents should call 319-363-1321 at least 24 hours in advance.

Its buses have been outfitted with protective plastic sheeting to separate both the riders and the driver. To maintain safe social distance, the buses can accommodate four passengers each. Fares are not being collected to limit contact.

“Every driver takes personal accountability for sanitizing their vehicles,” said Tabitha Downing, NTS driver and scheduling manager, noting drivers wipe down anything they touch such as knobs, turning signals and microphones, and are wearing gloves. “And anyone getting on the bus gets a squirt of sanitizer.”

On the first day of expanded service, NTS provided 42 rides, which included some beyond the essential service threshold to manufacturing plants, restaurants and call centers. This was done on a first-come, first-served basis, and those people still could get bumped for an essential service worker.

NTS had 58 trips booked for Thursday. It could not accommodate 19 rides, including people trying to get to Goodwill and to day care centers.

Barnhart said the service could potentially provide more rides but doesn’t have enough drivers. Two drivers who went out of state on vacation last week are in self-isolation now.

A big issue is a logistical “choke point” at traditional shift start and end times, Barnhart said. While people could wait to get picked up, most employees are less flexible for the start of their shift, he said. He also noted NTS has been working with other nonprofits on a system of delivering food, beyond Meals-on-Wheels.

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Barnhart said it is hard to predict whether demand would pick up more, noting as more employers are shutting down it lessens the places people need to get to.

Lyft and Uber remained active but with few available vehicles on Wednesday afternoon.

Taxi service also remains available, but demand is down, said Katia Richmond, a dispatcher and driver for City and Yellow Cab of Cedar Rapids. Service had not picked up Wednesday in conjunction with the transit shut down.

She noted sponsored medical trips through LogistiCare have been discontinued during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It looks like it has been pretty much the same,” Richmond said.

Linn County LIFTS Paratransit service will continue to provide rides to existing customers for essential services including medical trips, pharmacy, dialysis or grocery. All other people in need of essential medical transportation can contact LIFTS at 319-892-5170 for ride availability. Priority will be given to seniors and people with disabilities.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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