START bus riders will likely have more company onboard going forward.
With an OK from Teton County health officials, and after the Wyoming attorney general said Jackson Hole’s public transit system was exempt from state health orders limiting bus capacity, the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday to increase the number of people allowed to ride START buses at one time.
Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond supports the increase but didn’t say it’s safer — or more risky — than the previous situation.
In Pond’s view, operating buses under the state-mandated restrictions versus the town and county’s new capacity limits, which allow 11 more people on Teton Village buses, and 12 more people on town shuttle vehicles, is “essentially the same thing.”
The state health orders were “just too difficult in terms of moving people to and from the village,” Pond said. Under state orders, she added, “you are still within 6 feet of someone … you still have somebody in front of you and back of you, and to the side of you.”
Each bus will now be able to carry three quarters as many people as the vehicle has seats. Buses that service Teton Village and some commuter runs will now be able to carry 30 people at a time. The smaller town shuttle vehicles will be able to carry 22. The larger commuter buses that service Star Valley and Teton Valley, Idaho, will be able to carry 45.
Statewide health orders previously capped capacity at 18 people, plus a driver, on Teton Village buses, and nine passengers, plus a driver, on town shuttle lines, stressing the system during peak times. Commuter buses were exempt.
Wearing masks, which START requires, and increasing ventilation, which the transit agency is doing by keeping certain windows open and others closed (read more about that in a future Jackson Hole Daily) lessen the potential for COVID-19 transmission.
But the risk still remains, Pond said, and people will need to be responsible when riding the bus, including by spacing out as much as possible and wearing masks for the entire ride.
START Director Darren Brugmann told the Town Council and County Commission Wednesday that mask compliance when boarding has been excellent. But, on the bus, riders have not been as good about keeping masks over their noses and mouths.
“The vast majority, more than 90% of people, especially now, are complying with the mask mandate,” Brugmann said. “But we are still having pockets of noncompliance.”
Pond urged people, as she has for months, to wear their masks.
“Bus drivers are supposed to be paying attention and driving the bus. You don’t want them to be … yelling at people about putting a mask on,” she said. “People have to have personal responsibility to care for their neighbor, especially now that we’re going to add capacity.”
Increasing the number of people allowed on START buses is the second lever the town and county have used to improve the transit system’s ability to move people around Jackson Hole in light of restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The state health orders, which START is now exempt from, decreased the number of people allowed to ride the bus below the level the transit agency’s board had previously determined appropriate. Those limitations led the town and county last week to increase the number of buses running on START’s new Teton Village Express route. That route runs between Miller Park and Teton Village, stopping only at Albertsons and Stilson.
The two boards voted to spend $281,000, with the county footing the bill, on a contract with Salt Lake Express, which added the five buses to START’s fleet.
Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery said Attorney General Bridget Hill decided START was exempted from the state health orders under a carve out for “government business.” Buses run by the Teton Village Association, also a government entity, are exempt as well.
The change came after Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell requested a variance to allow group transportation in Teton County — a designation that includes private shuttles to and from hotels and such as well as START and Teton Village Association buses — to increase the number of riders in vehicles at any given time.
The County Commission asked Riddell to make the request. Commission Chair Natalia D. Macker explained why Wednesday.
“It was a desire to understand what health officials would allow in terms of capacity so we would know what the choices were,” she said. “And it was our understanding that we wouldn’t be able to get an official response on that without making an official request.”
Riddell will now have to decide whether to request a variance for private transportation.