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Palm Tran sees steep drop in ridership, millions lost in revenue due to COVID-19 pandemic

Routes cut back 30%, but no staff layoffs
Posted at 5:45 AM, Dec 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-21 07:13:26-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Tax revenue slowed to a drip in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, hitting every government level: cities, counties, states, local and regional agencies alike.

Among them was Palm Tran, according to numbers reviewed by Contact 5.

The Palm Beach County transportation agency told Contact 5 it served 3.2 million passengers between April and September, compared to 4.4 million passengers for the same six months in 2019.

'Palm Tran Riders' graphic

Clinton Forbes, executive director of Palm Tran, told Contact 5 the pandemic forced a 30% reduction in routes.

"We're in crisis mode," Forbes said in an interview.

Revenue saw a steeper decline than ridership.

Between April and September, Palm Tran saw a $3.7 million drop in revenue compared to the same time frame in 2019 -- a 79% loss.

'Palm Tran Fares' graphic

For four of those months, Palm Tran stopped riders from boarding at the front to help with social distancing between its drivers and passengers. Forbes said those customers entered from the back of the bus, where there are no fare collection boxes, and some passengers rode for free.

"Those folks don't have another option of transportation like the car," Forbes said. "They relied on us."

Roberta Humphrey is one of those riders.

Humphrey used to ride Palm Tran buses to house cleaning jobs. After the pandemic hit, she found herself unemployed and using the bus to look for work.

Humphrey told Contact 5 she had noticed "a major drop" in the number of passengers.

Jitty Fox sells snacks at the Intermodal Transit Center in downtown West Palm Beach and has a front-row seat to the drop in riders.

Fox pointed out he had also noticed a large decline in passengers taking Palm Tran.

"The numbers don't lie," Fox said in an interview.

Social distancing rules also cost Palm Tran customers.

Buses that can carry up to 70 passengers are now limited to 20. Contact 5 observed one bus stop at the Palm Beach County courthouse, but only one rider waiting at the bus stop was allowed to board because of capacity.

"Our focus is to ensure the safety of our customers and our employees," Forbes noted.

He added the agency had weathered the pandemic without layoffs.

According to Forbes, Palm Tran lost fewer passengers per capita than most other transit agencies in Florida. He said Palm Tran will need another stimulus to keep the agency running at current levels through 2021.

In the meantime, passengers like Humphrey continue to rely on Palm Tran's transportation services, whether it's to get to work or look for work, in Humphrey's case.

"I just want to get to my destination," Humphrey said.

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