The GRTC board of directors agreed Tuesday to amend a contract with Virginia Commonwealth University to help the university save money as most students plan to continue online learning through the spring semester.
The board’s move cuts an upcoming semiannual payment to the transit company by 50%. The board approved a similar payment reduction over the summer in anticipation of the university’s operational changes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arranged in 2018 following the opening of the Pulse bus rapid transit line, the payments are intended to subsidize free bus service for VCU and VCU Health students and employees.
The changes to the contract lowers the university’s total annual payment for the 2021 fiscal year from $1.66 million to $789,000.
“It’s a reflection of ... their reduced activity on the system,” said GRTC CEO Julie Timm.
Systemwide ridership in November fell 12% compared to the same month last year, according to operational reports presented to the board Tuesday.
Trips on the Pulse system decreased by 41% last month. Ridership on all other fixed routes in November, however, increased by 1.5%.
Transit officials have said the decline of the Pulse ridership reflects the university’s opening status, while the relatively steady ridership on all other fixed routes shows essential workers who cannot work from home are still relying on transit to get to their jobs.
Since the start of the fiscal year on July 1 through the end of November, ridership on all local routes except for the Pulse fell by only 6%.
Timm said GRTC considered lowering VCU’s annual payments because classes have moved online during the pandemic. She said the $32 million in federal CARES Act relief funding GRTC received last spring would also help cover the revenue loss.
Ben Campbell, chairman of the GRTC board of directors, questioned whether some essential VCU employees are still relying on the transit company. Timm said it has no data to determine how many university employees are still riding the bus.
A GRTC spokeswoman said the transit company is unable to collect VCU-specific data because the suspension of fares during the pandemic means its affiliates are no longer required to use university ID or specialty cards when boarding.
The university is projecting a revenue loss of at least $75 million through the upcoming spring semester as fewer students are enrolling and paying for campus housing, meal plans and parking.
The pandemic caused significant disruptions to bus service in recent weeks, as coronavirus cases around the region rose. Thirteen GRTC employees and contractors tested positive for the virus since November.
GRTC Chief of Transit Operations Tim Barham said the delays and other issues could continue for several months, as positive tests and suspected exposures require employees to take leave.
“This last month and a half has been the toughest stretch we’ve experienced so far,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to those employees who have been impacted. We pray for their speedy recovery.”
As of Tuesday morning, GRTC has disclosed a total of 38 positive cases among its employees and contractors. One of its employees, John Thrower, 49, died in September.
Timm said the transit company is working with local health officials to secure vaccines for its employees, potentially as soon as next month.
“We believe [strongly] that ... they’re still on the front line providing an essential service,” she said of the company’s employees. “We’ve requested and received assurances that transit workers will be among the first to receive the vaccination after health care workers.”
GRTC passengers who suspect their bus may not arrive can call the GRTC customer service line at (804) 358-4782 to inquire about service or request an emergency ride home if stranded at a bus stop.