HUNTERDON  COUNTY, NJ - During the pandemic, LINK bus service has continued for Hunterdon residents for work-related transportation, access to shopping including the Flemington Circle and for transportation to their essential medical trips including dialysis centers.

The county’s Transportation Advisory Committee held a virtual meeting May 13, and learned about plans for continuing physical distancing and a reduced number for bus capacities. On May 11, May 12 and May 14, ridership on the LINK bus saw increases from prior weeks, with mostly accommodations requested for riders to get to and from work, as area businesses begin reopening slowly but steadily.

Meagan O'Reilly, administrator for the county human services department, said her staff has worked closely with the county health department and in review of CDC guidelines, as well as Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders. This month, transportation is reviewing options for added protection for LINK bus drivers on the vehicles, to ensure there is enough distance and a barrier between the driver and passengers.

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O’Reilly spoke about evaluating a plexiglass mount for enclosing the driver’s seat area. Transportation is reviewing specs from companies that could be selected as vendors.

“In discussions with the health department and Easton Coach, we decided that we’d restrict ridership to five people per vehicle, and, to date, we’ve only received one complaint about that, that someone was not allowed on," she said. “We also request that drivers and passengers wear face masks at all times on-board. LINK is not able to transport passengers to any COVID-19 testing sites including at RVCC, and we are continuing to search for solutions that can assist people. If someone is seeking a test without transportation, we currently don’t have any options.”

“Logisticare has been mentioned, but we’d still need an answer from the state on that,” O’Reilly added.

Hunterdon County is not alone, as no mid-state county paratransit systems are transporting people to COVID-19 testing sites.

“Everyone is concerned not only about the passengers, but our drivers’ safety too," O’Reilly said. “We have been having weekly conference calls with other counties just to see what their operations look like and to talk about funding. We talk to each other a lot, which is good.”

Reporting to the committee on LINK bus system operations was Linda Empson, of new vendor Easton Coach. She explained the challenge of not knowing how many passengers will get on at any LINK fixed route stops, including at locations in Flemington.

“We’re going along our routes, we pick up people who want to get on, up to five passengers," Empson said.

If along that route somebody has scheduled a ride, and there already five on board, they are still picking up people who have scheduled transportation, Empson said. If there are five on-board and there are three people at a stop who made arrangements for the scheduled pick-up they will be let on (for fixed route services).

"People have been calling and scheduling for us, especially on the Flemington shuffle route as we’ve had elderly people call ahead to schedule because they did not want to be out there, waiting for a bus and then be denied their ride," Empson said. "Even though they are getting on and off at a scheduled stop, passengers still call to make sure they can have that ride.”

A few LINK bus drivers had not been in to work due to different symptoms they were experiencing, Empson said, but after a few went for COVID-19 testing, the system has not heard that anyone has tested positive to date.

“Other drivers have seen their regular doctor and are self-quarantining for 14 days, and the same for our staff," she said. "But we’re working through that process."

Erin Neukum, LINK transportation coordinator, said the staff is working well to see operations run smoothly, as not many residents have complained about not getting to have their ride.

“We continue to do the best we can within the circumstances, still we are able to accommodate 90 percent of passengers’ requests, if not more,” she said.

County Human Services applied for a Federal Transit Administration grant through the CARES Act, a Section 5311 grant, for just over $1 million. The freeholder board approved the application at its last meeting and, on May 8, the application was submitted.

O’Reilly said the grant can go toward operating costs, protective barriers on-board the LINK, PPE or other needed items.

The grant funds are 100 percent federal, with no county match required.

With the current adjustments, LINK buses are cleaned daily before drivers start their run, once their run has ended and in between during the schedule. On weekends, buses undergo more thorough cleanings.

Empson credited drivers too for keeping themselves and the passengers safe, “and moving at the same time.”

“We give them cleaning supplies, but like everyone, we’re having problems finding Lysol sprays and wipes, so we stop anywhere to get the supplies," she said. "It is problematic, but we continue to shop for it and there are other products we buy when we can’t get those. Definitely the drivers are up to speed on cleanings, and, on-board, they wear masks."

Two LINK buses remain out of service with accident repair to be addressed, and Empson said Easton Coach has not been able to get quotes to replace the bus sidewalls and some exterior parts from its vendors.

Another transportation division initiative mentioned for this year is upgrading tablet computers, tablet sleeves and the mounts for tablets on-board LINK shuttle buses.

County residents can contact LINK administration for rides and inquiries at 1-800-842-0531, or visit ridethelink.com.