Big Blue Bus will run at 70% service levels this summer. (File photo)

Big Blue Bus is planning to shift service and cut nearly 50 positions as county stay-at-home orders reduce daily ridership to a quarter of its typical size.

BBB has already reduced service during the coronavirus shutdown to serve about 10,000 people each day, many of whom are essential workers, said Ed King, director of transit services. In 2019, the agency ferried more than 44,000 customers around the Westside on a typical weekday.

On May 24, BBB will implement a new service plan that cuts typical summer service by 30%. Key commuter routes along Santa Monica, Lincoln and Pico boulevards will run on a regular schedule, others with less ridership will run less frequently and two routes serving Santa Monica College will be eliminated while the college continues to operate online.

As of last week, riders have been required to wear face coverings. After two bus drivers tested positive for coronavirus in March, drivers have been given masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and buses are being disinfected each day.

The agency aims to circulate enough buses to ensure that riders can occupy every other seat, which would result in a maximum load of 19 customers in 40-foot buses and 29 customers in 60-foot buses.

BBB is also reducing service hours for MODE, its ridehailing program for seniors and people with disabilities. For the time being, the service will be available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

King said demand for MODE has fallen dramatically as customers self-isolate at home. The number of rides per month the service provides fell from 6,000 last fall to about 800 in April, he said.

Although the overall cost of MODE has decreased, the price per ride has increased since shared rides were suspended to allow for physical distancing. King said BBB is evaluating how to bring down the program’s fixed costs.

The agency’s decision to suspend bus fares in late March so riders could board buses through the back door without the risk of infecting drivers was a necessary public health measure that has put BBB in a tricky financial position.

BBB collected $11.4 million in fares last year, representing 15% of its revenue, according to the agency’s financial statements. Most of its revenue comes from regional and state sales tax.

Continuing to suspend fares through June would result in a $2 to $4 million deficit through the end of this fiscal year, King said. BBB is planning to cut $17.3 million from its $102 million annual budget, including 46.3 full-time equivalent positions.

King said BBB will begin collecting fares again when public health experts indicate it is safe to do so and will ask riders to pay with their TAP cards or phones rather than cash.

“We’re looking at what the rest of the (transit) industry is going to do to be able to collect fares, and obviously we won’t start collecting fares until we’re comfortable with the medical advice we receive,” he said.

BBB plans to continue a long-term plan to replace its fleet with carbon-neutral buses by 2030, King said.

Aging buses will continue to be replaced with battery-powered buses, which cost about $800,000 each and are funded through grants and sales tax. The delivery of 18 buses City Council approved last October will be delayed six months to late 2021 because the plant manufacturing them has temporarily closed, he said.

King said he projects that BBB will restore 80% of its typical weekday service a year from now.

“It all hinges on what happens in the business community and whether we have the appropriate financial resources from the county and the state,” he said. “We’ll have some challenges financially, just like everyone else, but we’re very optimistic about the economic recovery in Santa Monica and Los Angeles.”

madeleine@smdp.com

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