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START bus seeks more funds as cracks appear in the COVID policy

JACKSON, Wyo. — The START Bus has become the arena in which the unanswered questions this pandemic has created are playing out. The confined space of the bus is showing the cracks in the policies created surrounding the pandemic, the major one being, who is the enforcer of the mask mandate?

Lori Iverson, a season pass holder at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and START bus rider shared her experience using the bus to and from Teton Village earlier this week.

Iverson discussed her experience on Tuesday, Dec. 1, after she took a close to capacity Express bus from the village in the early afternoon. A fellow passenger was not wearing a mask, “I don’t fault the driver at all, I didn’t notice it, I know the driver didn’t, people were boarding from both the front and the back and it was someone who just came in and sat in the back seat,” said Iverson, adding, “the only reason that I noticed it was as the drive continued I could clearly and very loudly hear his voice and it was obvious that it was different from the sound of other peoples voices because it didn’t have the muffling that you get from a mask and I just casually turned around and looked and saw that he wasn’t wearing one.”

The back door is designated as an exit only. Passengers are supposed to board through the front so the driver can collect fares, and now check to see if riders are wearing masks. “I know that START personnel is trying to do their best within their budget and the limit of available drivers and busses, but it will only get more difficult as the season picks up,” said Iverson.

The issue of public transportation is in many ways, unique to this valley. The START Bus system is used by commuters and skiers alike. There are no free parking options in the village except carpooling to the ranch lot with three or more people, an option that is not realistic for many people during the pandemic.

In a special town and county meeting on Nov. 30 electeds discussed these same issues.

Darren Brugman, START Bus Transit Director, presented a budget amendment for START bus, seeking approval from the council. The money would be used to increase the level of winter service, estimated at a figure of $281,000. This money would be used to provide three additional runs during morning and afternoon peak hours, providing a capacity increase of 144 passengers per day. The increase in runs would help alleviate pressure during the crowded powder days and holidays.

Brugman also shared ridership data, “last year for the very first two days of our winter season, which began on a Saturday and Sunday, we averaged about 2,100 passengers each day, that amounts to about 600 on the town shuttle and about 1500 to and from the village. This year for the first two days, we averaged about 1000 passengers for Saturday and Sunday, thats about 50% less than what we carried for the beginning of the winter season.”

The focus of the meeting was to question how the START Bus can transport as many passengers as possible in a safe manner. This includes how a mask rule will be enforced, and how many people can safely be on the bus at one time.

Currently, the amount of riders on a bus is capped at 24 people per bus. In the proposed amendment, START would seek the independent contractor, Salt Lake Express for additional driver and bus resources.

The START buses that leave Teton Village later in the day are often packed, so it begs the question: How is everyone guaranteed a ride if the bus is operating at a smaller capacity? And if someone isn’t wearing the mask, is it the driver’s job to enforce it?

In Lori Iverson’s case, the driver didn’t notice the individual not wearing a mask while his eyes were on the road. “It’s just hard in this day in age about whether you want to confront people, if I had, I would have done so in a very polite manner but in looking at the police blotter this week, there were three incidents listed of confrontations where the police had to be called because someone got abusive or combative or were very upset because someone confronted them about masks,” said Iverson.

In the meeting, Officials discussed pulling the bus over, and possibly kicking a commuter off if they are not complying. However, that would affect the bus schedule for the rest of the day, and some bus routes, like from Alpine or Victor, go through areas where it would be quite dangerous to kick someone off in a cold and isolated area. Questions were raised if that is even within the bus driver’s paygrade.

If a driver did have issues, then it would be their responsibility to contact law enforcement to help handle the situation. But again, this might mean that the START schedule is delayed, causing commuters to be late to work or other destinations.

A suspension was brought up that would disable non-complying passengers from riding the START bus.

Lori Iverson’s two cents? “Concerns for others and a commitment to community resiliency aren’t things that can be mandated. They come from the heart and are a part of a person’s character and what we really need is for people to come through and show that we can all do this together, use public transportation in an area that needs public transportation but do it in a smart way.”

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