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story.lead_photo.caption A JeffTran bus makes its way Tuesday down Boonville Road. JeffTran is among a few transit groups that will receive relief funds to cover the additional costs of running buses and the revenue they've lost during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo by Liv Paggiarino / News Tribune.
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As bus systems keep rolling to get people to and from essential jobs and services, some have struggled with funding as they lose riders or suspend fares entirely.

As part of a relief package Congress approved in late March, JeffTran, OATS and SERVE Inc. in Mid-Missouri will receive relief funds to cover the additional costs of running buses and the revenue they've lost during the COVID-19 outbreak. The grants can pay for operating expenses starting Jan. 20, including expenses to maintain service and paid leave for employees who were furloughed because of reduced operations.

JeffTran was approved for $2.3 million from the FTA, while the Missouri Department of Transportation approved $27.9 million for OATS and $833,263 for SERVE, a Fulton nonprofit that provides door-to-door transportation for Callaway and surrounding counties, along with a food bank and other community services.

The grants are an extension of other federal transit grants. Cities larger than 50,000 people apply directly to the Federal Transit Authority, while providers like OATS and SERVE applied to MoDOT for their share of the $61.7 million the state received for rural transit.

JeffTran stopped charging fares for its fixed routes March 19. Fewer people are riding amid stay-at-home orders, but the buses are still running the same routes. Director Mark Mehmert said the bus system is doing everything it can to keep drivers and passengers safe so it can keep the buses running.

"We know people depend on transit, it's essential to many people, and it's something that we're striving very, very hard to keep open and to take the proper precautions," Mehmert said.

One precaution is extra cleaning, including hiring professional cleaners to sanitize the fleet. It's also been trying to impose social distancing on buses by having riders enter and exit through the back door and blocking off seats close to the driver. JeffTran also has been buying surgical masks to protect its drivers.

So far, the precautions have kept JeffTran drivers healthy. One driver showed symptoms but tested negative for the coronavirus, Mehmert said.

"If our drivers go down, we're at a loss for how we would operate," he said.

With demand increasing across the world, cleaning supplies and protective equipment like masks is harder to find and more costly to buy. Like most essential services, these additional costs have made providing transit more expensive, and JeffTran cut off its revenue when it stopped charging fares a month ago.

OATS, a nonprofit that provides rural bus service across 87 Missouri counties, has seen a major impact as well. On March 20, it cut back to only "essential" rides, taking passengers to places like dialysis and doctor appointments, grocery stores or food banks. It's also lost revenue from contracts to take people to businesses because the businesses closed.

In Central Missouri, OATS service has been reduced to about 10 percent of its normal operations, and it's down 80-90 percent statewide over late March and early April, OATS Executive Director Dorothy Yeager said in an email.

It's been a major impact on OATS, which has had to temporarily furlough drivers it doesn't have work for, Yeager said. Those drivers are using leave or unemployment insurance, she said.

"It is our hope this funding will help us, and other transit providers in Missouri, return to normal levels of operation when the pandemic is over," Yeager said.

Unlike most federal grants, Mehmert said, this one doesn't come with an expiration date, so the Jefferson City transit service plans to use it to fill gaps where they see them. In the meantime, they're trying to keep transit safe by urging people to follow stay-at-home orders and only use the buses when necessary.

"We're in uncharted territory," Mehmert said. "We'll keep doing the best we can."

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