Suffolk County navigates crisis through safety and service

As home to one of the largest school bus fleets in the industry with a public transit division (Suffolk Bus Corp.) offering service to upwards of 1.5 million county residents, Suffolk Transportation Service, Inc. is committed to providing safe and reliable transportation throughout the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. 

In the past 50 years, Suffolk Transportation Services, Inc. has grown from 35 school buses and 15 transit buses to over 1,600 school buses, 80 transit buses and 200 paratransit buses with upwards of 500 drivers split between public transit and paratransit services alone.

“Back in March when this started, we didn’t have a vivid understanding of what was truly going on,” said Ray Grimaldi, vice president of transit operation and corporate maintenance at Suffolk Bus Corp. “We were led by our governor, who was guiding us through a pandemic that we really didn’t understand, while continuously working to maintain a full transit system.”

Suffolk Bus Corp. maintained full service throughout the crisis, in both public transit and paratransit operations. To help paratransit ridership, a new Single-Rider per-trip policy was initiated. This policy helped to relieve some of the stress for the paratransit ridership.

“Paratransit can wined itself down,” Grimaldi explained. “The paratransit system feeds off itself. As volume dropped, so did the service needs, which was good because I had less availability to my resources.”

In an effort to increase safety and curb further loses, the company quickly implemented increased safety measures including social distancing, mandatory face coverings, protective shielding, and elimination of front-door boarding and fare collection.

The company also re-aligned its staffing to accommodate new disinfecting measures and adopted vigorous cleaning throughout the fleet and offices.

“We developed a disinfecting program that’s still in place today, where every bus is disinfected twice a day,” Grimaldi said. “Every bus in the fleet. And the fleet is 200 parabuses and 85 fixed route buses, so we have a rather large fleet.”

Like most other transit agencies, Suffolk Bus Corp. initially struggled with enforcing mask mandates among riders. They developed a program focused around media hype which quickly increased their ridership’s PPE utilization.

Since June, the company’s ridership has slowly returned, with paratransit commuters back to 60 percent and fixed route systems up to 65 percent.

“The ridership feels comfortable using our system, as do our Drivers,” Grimaldi said. “There’s nothing too small or too large that we will not consider to keep the ridership and the drivers safe.”

As a private operator, Suffolk Bus Corp. runs under an RFP for the county, working closely with local government agencies including the Suffolk County Commissioner’s Office and the Department of Public Works. According to Grimaldi, the agencies continue to communicate on a regular basis via weekly virtual calls addressing any current or forthcoming issues.

“We continue to maintain Safety and Service,” Grimaldi said. “But as we go through this day to day, and as things get a little back to normal, as long as we are protecting ourselves, protecting the drivers, we will continue to run the business as normal as we can.”