Bus driver union worries Community Transit collecting fares too soon amid virus risk

If you use public transit in the North Sound, you probably noticed Community Transit has ended fare-free rides as more people are moving out and about.

The agency said it is taking cleaning and other steps seriously to keep both riders and passengers safe, but the union representing some employees worry the agency is moving too fast to return to normal.

A Community Transit spokesperson said the agency is facing a massive budget shortfall. Most of the agency’s revenue comes from sales taxes but the spokesperson said collecting fares is one way to ensure operations can continue.

But collecting those fares means passengers must enter at the front of the bus right next to the driver, and that is causing the union to worry.

“I do believe they are doing the best that they can,” said Thomas Lamotta.

Lomatta said he depends on public transportation. He said he mostly worries about the other riders who don't follow the rules in terms of social distancing and abiding by face cover mandates.

“I don’t feel safe with the people behind you coughing,” he said. “They don’t cover their mouths.”

Passengers are being asked by the transit agency to wear face coverings. If they refuse or cause a scene, drivers can radio dispatch for help or police if necessary.

But the driver’s union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1576 said when Community Transit asked riders to resume paying for rides on July 1, it eliminated social distancing between riders and their members.

“It’s too soon to open the front door,” said Danielle Julien from the union.

Community Transit said hundreds of drivers are testing a plexiglass barrier that would separate them from passengers. It is also giving drivers PPE, but shortages means the materials are rationed.

“Opening that front door and collecting fares was far too premature until we had other safety measures in place,” said ATU 1576 president Kathleen Custer.

“It’s not over, it’s probably just begun,” said one Community Transit coach operator.

The driver spoke to Q13 News on condition of anonymity for fear of disciplinary action for speaking to the media without authorization.

He said the PPE helps but worries it might not be enough.

“I personally feel maybe it’s not enough,” he said, “I feel safe enough to continue.”

Community Transit and the union are still mourning the loss of operator Scott Ryan who died earlier this year from COVID-19.

The agency insists driver and passenger safety is a top priority, but the union worries the danger is far from over and insists fares should be scrapped until the physical barriers can be installed on all coaches.

“You don’t need to follow the minimum requirements,” said Custer. “You need to go above and beyond that because we are at risk every day out there.”

A Community Transit spokesperson said the agency is in constant contact with state regulators working to ensure conditions for drivers remain safe.