Troy Chamber President, Tara Tomcsik-Husak interviews Madonna Van Fossen with SMART and Oakland County Ombudsman.

 

TARA: How had Covid-19 affected SMART and the public transportation industry as a whole?

MADONNA: Mid-March I was informed that I should begin working from home and our journey through the COVID-19 pandemic began.

SMART moved mountains in its effort to get over 100 of the employees at SMART set up to work at home. SMART was deemed ‘critical infrastructure’ by the Governor and all employees as essential. So, it was imperative to ensure operations throughout the Authority continued. Every department at SMART was in high gear and on high alert as protocols were established, procedures adjusted and safety for our employees AND our riders became the #1 focus. Our HR and IT departments went into warp speed communicating all changes as they occurred and ensuring everyone at home could perform their duties with minimal to no interruptions. The planning/scheduling department began reviewing data collected and suggested route reduction strategies to upper management based upon the decline in ridership. Robert Cramer, Deputy General Manager at SMART, relied on the “Director’s team” that consists of all upper management as well as other managers who play a key role in SMART’s day to day operations. Weekly Zoom meetings with Drivers – Connector and Fixed Route, Road Supervisors, Maintenance staff, Administrative staff and Ombudsmen began and these meeting still take place today, 2 months later. The communications are stellar, the support is phenomenal and the resolve across the board to continue providing an important and critical service is amazing. While our service was cut by 70%, everyone and I mean EVERYONE at SMART is working together and committed to restoring our service to keep ahead of the demand and need and do it as safely as possible so we keep people moving.

Regarding other public transportation agencies across the state. Flint MTA and Lansing CATA had shut down fixed route services, and are now slowly restoring their Fixed Route services. DDOT made minor reductions and is slowly restoring those reduced services. AATA in Ann Arbor is also planning to slowly restore service.

TARA: Professionally and personally, what has been your greatest obstacle during this crisis?

MADONNA: For SMART, the greatest obstacle was the speed which changes were made and balancing the safety of our employees all the while ensuring there was reliable service for those people who depended upon us to get to their jobs, their medical appointments and the grocery stores for food. What SMART was able to achieve within a 2 – 3 week period was astounding. Great leadership, communication, commitment, and willingness by all got us through.

My biggest obstacle as Ombudsman was adjusting to working from home; learning about new ways to communicate – Zoom meetings and staying on top of all changes taking place. So much information coming from the County, the State, Federal Transit Administration….this was A LOT! Thankfully though, SMART disseminated all of it and passed it along in language that communicated the seriousness of the situation yet kept hope alive so while the fear factor was evident it was not overwhelming.

TARA: I completely understand the difficulty of working from home and trying to navigate through all of the confusion. Speaking of changes, have routes been affected during the stay at home orders and what is the timeline to get routes back?

MADONNA: SMART took a stepped approach as it witnessed the significant drop in ridership to approximately 20% of normal. It was also very important for us to

balance the health and safety of our drivers as they are one of the main reasons, we could keep reliable service on the road. So in mid-March, SMART instituted free fares and rear-door boarding to minimize the interaction drivers had with the public and cordoned off seats to protect the drivers as well as those riding. By the end of March, SMART reduced service to 40% of normal to accommodate the decline in ridership yet provide the service for essential trips. Smaller service reductions and adjustments were made in April to better reflect the demands of ridership.

Also in Mid-March, SMART stepped up its cleaning and sanitization efforts to include weekly micro-bacterial electrostatic spray of all buses and facilities in addition to the nightly and mid-route cleaning efforts that had been in effect.

In early June, we will begin restoring some service on key routes that are seeing some more significant ridership, but still operating at approximately 60% of our overall normal service. Increasing the service as more businesses open to customers and employees will get more service on the road in an effort to spread out riders on buses. In addition, SMART is taking a look at other options that would help encourage riders to practice social distancing on the buses.

Between June and August, dependent upon the Governors “Stay at Home” Order being lifted, all buses will be outfitted with Plexiglas driver shields and all safety precautionary measures will remain – masks required to ride all buses; additional buses running on routes to ensure social distancing available in seating; based upon ridership data services will ramp up and fareboxes may be reactivated with measures in place to prevent passengers from passing germs to one another.

The longer term goals, September and beyond, SMART is preparing for the possibility of spikes in the virus cases, and to be ready if another “Stay at Home” order appears. We are continuing the safety protocols in place at all locations and on all buses, including having employees work remotely to the maximum extent possible, with the option to resume work in the office on a case by case basis. The most important ongoing goal is continue to support all employees and riders as each of us deal with this crisis and the various impacts it will have on our lives over the duration. We are in this together and together we will get through!

TARA: How can people stay up to date on routes are being offered?

MADONNA: People can go to the SMART website, www.smartbus.org, for all information. If riders use the 41411 to text for real time arrival, they could receive a general text about service changes and/or reductions. In addition, posters on all buses, media releases, messages via MySMART email, and posts on social media – FB and Twitter provide updates. Or people can call 866-962-5515 and speak with a representative to find out information.

TARA: How will this pandemic change the services you provide?

MADONNA: Our core service – per se – is not changing. SMART is identified as ‘critical infrastructure’ and its employees deemed essential workers, therefore we are committed to getting people to the places they need to go!

What has changed however is the focus on new, additional safety procedures ensuring the protection of our employees and our riders. Masks are required; strongly encourage following social distancing guidelines; ongoing disinfecting in all our terminals and on our buses; health screening of employees and riders using the Connector service.

SMART is committed to providing service for those who need to make essential trips and as the restrictive Executive orders are eased taking people to jobs, appointments and elsewhere will ensue. Over the long term, some routes may not return to their normal use based on shifting work patterns, while other routes may see more service needed than ever. We will be watching closely over the coming months!

TARA: I am sure you have been speaking with riders who may have fears of riding the bus during this time. With all of the information out there, is it still safe to use public transportation?

MADONNA: SMART is doing their part with the safety measures in place, and we need everyone who rides the bus to do their part to keep themselves and others safe – wearing face masks while riding; try to limit rides on SMART for essential trips only – work, medical appointments, groceries, etc. AND if they’re feeling ill, stay home and do not ride.

I think the most important thing to communicate is that following the basics is the best way to keep everyone safe. Wash your hands, keep as much distance as possible from others, and, most of all, everyone wear a mask! While masks provide a small level of protection for the wearer, the real benefit is that when everyone wears one it keeps the germs in their breath, coughs, and sneezes contained and minimizes the spreading to another person or surface where it can be picked up. When we work together and follow established safety protocols IT IS SAFE to use public transportation.

TARA: What have you (or will you be doing) to improve the safety for riders?

MADONNA: Communicate, communicate and then communicate more! SMART continues to reach out and share our best practices and we continue supporting our riders and other transportation programs throughout SE Michigan. We also convey information we receive from the County, the State and the FTA. The more people are educated with the facts about what is going on, the better everyone is equipped to work together and respond with practices and solutions that benefit the whole. With everyone following the rules about wearing a mask and keeping your distance, riders and drivers can have confidence to arrive at their destinations safely.

TARA: What new safety standards did SMART put in place to protect their drivers and riders?

MADONNA: Masks required on all buses – Connector and Fixed Route; protective driver area shields are being installed on all our buses; riders enter the buses through the rear door and social distancing is strongly encouraged in terminals, offices, and on the buses. Daily health screening questionnaires need to be completed by all employees going into their office including our drivers and maintenance staff. Touchless thermometer stations are being purchased and placed in key areas throughout the terminals and headquarters so all SMART employees can be screened daily, and health screening calls are made the day before a scheduled appointment to riders using the Connector buses. PPE’s are also made available to all SMART staff at the terminals.

TARA: It is great to see that you are doing so much to help protect SMART employees and the riders. Do you have any other tips you would like to share?

MADONNA: Communicate…communicate and communicate more. Be considerate of others and share your kindness with a smile, your words and your eyes. Many people are in a state of fear because there is so much unknown, however if we let each other know we are in this together and we talk and we listen, we will get through this. And practice safe protocol (especially wear your mask!) because it benefits everyone.

TARA: You know that I love working with you and SMART at the Troy Chamber. I always admired how SMART makes it a priority to engage with the local community. Is there anything specific that that you all are doing to help the community during this time?

MADONNA: We share our resources with all the communities and agencies we deal with and literally anyone who asks. For example, I recently shared the contact information for the vendors we use to purchase our PPE. We also share any information about funding opportunities that we receive as well as best practices and safety protocols we found to be effective.

In addition, SMART has been allotted some of the Federal CARES act funding to support lost revenues and additional costs/supplies related to the virus over the next 12-18 months. We are planning to share several million dollars of our allotment with the 50+ community-based transportation programs we support across the three county region. As each of them grapples with the crisis, we want to help as they work to safely serve their riders moving forward.

We continue to support our employees who keep us running – our maintenance staff, the road supervisors and drivers – all those on the frontline as well as those behind the scene, the purchasing and finance departments, our administrative staff and more. We have stepped in when local, community transportation programs had to shut down and provided rides to those residents with essential needs. We do all this and so much more because at SMART we care!

To feature your company in the Blog Series: The Effects of COVID-19 on Industry, please contact Troy Chamber President, Tara Tomcsik-Husak.
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