Shields that close like gates after operators are buckled into their seats are being installed in all public buses in the District and Alexandria and in Montgomery, Fairfax, Prince George’s and Arlington counties, officials in all six jurisdictions said. The safety addition, which cost more than $3.6 million across the localities, is mostly funded through the federal Cares Act.
Transit systems continue to operate under strict cleaning and disinfecting protocols and are requiring riders and employees to wear masks. Some are limiting the number of riders to maintain social distancing.
“We are installing the protective equipment and taking a number of steps to ensure that our Circulator operators [and riders] are safe during a pandemic,” said Jeff Marootian, D.C.’s transportation chief, who oversees the six-route D.C. Circulator.
Metrobus and suburban bus systems discontinued fare collection in March at the onset of the pandemic. Boarding and exiting through rear doors created distance between bus operators and passengers.
Metrobus, which provides regional bus service, already had installed similar protective barriers on its 1,600 buses before the pandemic — with a goal of keeping drivers safe from passenger assaults. The transit agency will resume front-door entry and fare collection Sunday.
Officials with Fairfax Connector, Arlington’s ART and Prince George’s TheBus said they are aiming to complete shield installation by early January to resume fare collection concurrently with Metrobus.
Bus systems nationwide have embraced the safety feature as a way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
From Washington to San Antonio and Orange County, Calif., transit systems began retrofitting buses with the shields as early as the spring. Some used temporary plastic partitions, and others have manufactured their own. High demand has slowed procurement processes in some jurisdictions. Barriers can cost as much as $5,000 apiece.
The Denver Regional Transportation District said see-through shields separating operators from the passenger aisle are now standard in its 900-bus fleet. The agency crafted its own to save money, employing more than two dozen people to get the barriers up this fall at a cost of $400 each.
In New York, the MTA announced plans to put barriers up in 4,800 local buses and 1,000 express buses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August permitted the installation of both hard plastic barriers and clear plastic soft shields on school buses to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, allowing states that prohibit the use of such barriers to get them under some requirements.
“The new barriers are part of our commitment to continuously protect bus operators when performing their heroic work of keeping this city moving,” Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the New York City Transit Authority, said in a statement.
Ray Jackson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents more than 16,000 workers in the Washington region, said the barriers are a priority for bus drivers to have a higher level of safety on the job.
“All of the buses should have some kind of shield to protect the operator,” he said, recalling a Detroit case in which a passenger coughed on bus driver Jason Hargrove. Hargrove posted a Facebook video expressing outrage about the passenger openly coughing on him and other riders. Days later, he died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“If he had had a shield between him and that passenger, would the results have been different? I think it would have,” Jackson said. “He would still be with us now.”
In the Washington area, the addition of barriers in suburban bus systems comes as the region experiences an increase in coronavirus cases and after many jurisdictions added new restrictions on the public.
Some bus systems have resumed normal operations, while others are operating fewer routes or with adjusted schedules. Ridership is 40 to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to transit officials. Even as more transit options become available, officials say it could be months or longer before normal operations return.
Montgomery County’s Ride On, the Washington region’s second-largest bus system after Metrobus, is operating at about 80 percent of normal service levels and demand has increased in recent months, officials said. The system plans to resume front-door entry and fare collection after installing shields on its 377 buses at a cost of $1.9 million. Montgomery, which is buying steel and plastic shields from manufacturer ArowGuard, is paying one of the highest prices in the region: about $5,000 a piece, including material and installation.
On a recent Tuesday, Ride On bus driver Anthony Hill was helping in the effort at the county’s maintenance and transit operation center in Derwood. He removed a piece of plastic that was used in buses before the new shields arrived. Crews have been working daily to get all the buses ready.
“We don’t anticipate that we’re going to be collecting fares before that work is done. And that’s probably going to be late January [or early] February, because there’s been such a high demand for those barriers from transit agencies everywhere that they’ve been slow to arrive,” said Christopher Conklin, the county’s transportation director.
In the District, D.C. Circulator continues to operate on a modified schedule and won’t reinstate fares until all 72 buses have the operator barrier, sometime in early 2021. Retrofitting with shields will cost $400,000, spokeswoman Lauren Stephens said.
In Virginia, transit officials said they were closing in on getting all 329 Fairfax Connector buses retrofitted for about $1,200 a piece.
In Arlington, ART will resume front-door boarding and fare collection in early January to align with the reinstatement of fare collection on Metrobus. All 78 buses in the fleet were scheduled to get the operator barrier in late December. Arlington is spending about $125,000 of federal aid for the project — or about $1,600 apiece.
Alexandria is not planning to resume fare collection until March after driver barriers are installed. DASH employees are working to obtain the barriers to install them in all 99 buses, spokeswoman Whitney Code said. The purchase and installation will cost about $5,000 apiece.
In Prince George’s, TheBus began installing $2,500 shields in its 98 fixed-route buses and 48 on-demand vehicles at the onset of the pandemic. As of mid-December, 80 percent of the vehicles had the shields. The county plans to resume fares in January as it completes installation, spokeswoman Paulette Jones said.
Metrobus completed installation on all its 1,600 buses last year, responding to a rise in attacks on drivers. The use of protective shields gained steam in 2017 after high-profile assaults, including one involving a woman who threw urine at a driver on an X2 bus.
Jackson, of Local 689, which represents bus drivers in multiple systems in the Washington region, said the union is also pushing for fare boxes to be moved to reduce the driver-passenger interaction at the entrance, as well as for other ventilation improvements.
Jackson recently asked Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to extend the shields in its buses to better wall off drivers.
“We have to assume that everyone that walks pass the bus operator is covid-positive,” he said. “Drivers have one of the most dangerous jobs in this country now. We have to do everything we can to keep the operator as well as the passengers safe.”