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Chapter 4: Challenges A pandemic presents the DOT and transit agency with challenges, some unfamiliar, that must be overcome. Unknown risks and tradeoffs may require new ways of doing regular jobs and communicating with one another; and bring new partners and stakeholders to the table. The greatest of these challenges is the ongoing need to balance safety with service, a challenge transportation agencies wrestle with every day. During a pandemic that balancing must be done while dealing with uncertainty - in science and what is known (related to the disease); in policy (related to the response and capabilities of agency and stakeholders); and in behavioral/social/political spheres (affecting changes in both attitudes and behaviors of individuals but also agencies, firms, organizations and communities). The following are other major challenges agencies have experienced during COVID-19. Within these challenges are kernels of opportunity to emerge stronger, more resilient, more compassionate, and more connected as agencies and as individuals. Part 2 Fear/loss of confidence in safety Pandemics can trigger feelings of powerlessness, discomfort, and insecurity. There is much unseen and unknown about the most effective steps to reduce or even eliminate risks, which, in turn, can impact the perception of safety. Fears and concerns of employees and the traveling public influence their work and travel decisions, and some of those fears are grounded in fact. Some are not. According to Dr. Thomas Matte, Senior Science Advisor for Environmental Health at Vital Strategies, a global public health organization, âthe public perceptions and press coverage of COVID-19 transmission risk in transit has created more fear than is warranted by the evidence.â Nevertheless, transportation workers can be at risk for exposure in the workplace even with the known risks mitigated through protective actions. Managing the fears of employees and the public is a major challenge during a pandemic. Fears can be fed by lack of information and rumors. Transportation agencies must demonstrate their âsafety firstâ culture, visibly adhering to and enforcing science-based health guidelines within their authority. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and others recommend establishing credibility by following public health guidelines from official sources. Maryland Department of Transportation â Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) had a registered nurse from Operations speak to every department and each front line shift to provide information about COVID-19 and explain related MDOT MTA processes. More information is found in the Public Confidence Play. A Pandemic Playbook for Transportation Agencies 13
Keeping employees and passengers informed and empowered makes a difference. As pandemic testing and infection rates ebb and flow, region to region and season to season, and as health advisories change, transportation agencies must be transparent and forthcoming with employees and the public about the risks, the exposure (notifying employees and the public about potential exposure with HIPAA guidelines in mind), and what the agency is doing to keep employees and the public safe. Above all, the agency can emphasize the social contract of mutual respect and consideration that employees and the public must adhere to for keeping one another safe. Instituting concrete measures and communicating what is being done will provide reassurance to both employees and the public. High-visibility cleaning and strong health-messaging campaigns coupled with universal mask wearing will help reassure passengers that they can return to a safe transit system. APTA launched a national âHealth and Safety Commitments Programâ for transit agencies. New York MTA, along with the New York Port Authority and New Jersey Transit, implemented âOperation Respect,â a multi- layered strategy to encourage universal face covering compliance by customers on the regionâs trains, buses, and commuter rails. Morale and trust Pandemics impact employees in many ways. Almost everyone has their regular work routine severely disrupted. During COVID-19, some are now performing tasks that are quite different from their regular job, e.g., assisting the state with âsurgeâ needs in other agencies or conducting specific pandemic-related data collection tasks. In some states, employees may face furloughs. These impacts all affect employee morale. Maintaining or rebuilding morale is a multi-faceted and long-term effort requiring trust between the agency and employees. During COVID-19, most agencies have had very good outcomes with remote work forces, which fundamentally is an exercise in mutual trust. Transparency with employees is paramount. An agency must stay in close touch with employees, and the union if applicable, to be aware of employee issues and address them as much as possible. Employees must know that their safety and concerns are as important to the agency as âgetting the work out.â Some agencies are designating a staff member to be responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns or establishing a convenient means, such as the existing safety hotline MDOT MTA used, to collect those concerns. A Pandemic Playbook for Transportation Agencies 14
Some seemingly small things can make a real difference. Providing âpizza daysâ for in-house or field staff or other morale boosters, for example, let employees know they are appreciated. Loss of team building/interaction During a pandemic, agencies may transform into virtual operations for large portions of their workforceâplanners, engineers, administrators, and more. Maintenance and other field crews may be isolated from their peers into smaller units. Virtual meetings and on-line interactions become more common than the face-to-face interactions and idea exchanges that are a major part of many normal DOT and transit agency work activities. During COVID-19, some agencies have found that interactions through existing or ramped-up technologies are better than before. For example, weekly or monthly briefings with key staff were held rather than quarterly in-person meetings. However, opportunities for informal interactions and loss of team building experiences created challenges for many agencies. To address these challenges, agencies took a range of approaches. Some designated specific sessions, e.g., Friday sessions to share stories to getting to know one another better on a personal as well as professional level. Others posted photos of employees working during the pandemic. Stress and psychological impacts The unprecedented long-term nature of a pandemic and the uncertainty it brings creates stress. Along with work and financial stressors, many employees are dealing with worries about family membersâ health and/or employment status. Many are also juggling childcare responsibilities including supervising remote learning or home schooling. Areas may experience concurrent events, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or wildfire, compounding the stress their employees or family members are experiencing. Long-term stress is physically and psychologically harmful. Trauma causes us to âgo to the emotional basementâ and cuts off higher skills in favor of survival skills. Agencies must recognize this. Employees may want to press through without a break, but the agency must recognize the imperative for employees to rest and recuperate. Agencies can modify schedules to allow staff to take needed time to address family concerns and reduce stress. The use of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can be encouraged, and additional mental health resources should be made readily available if necessary. Agencies can work with the group health care provider to waive co-pays, if necessary. More information is found in the Employee Impact and Communications Plays. More information is found in the Employee Impact Play. A Pandemic Playbook for Transportation Agencies 15
Guidance is available from national health organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Drug & Alcohol Screening Association (NDASA), on managing stress and anxiety during COVID-19. Funding Pandemics create an immediate reduction of agency revenue (tolls, fares, sales tax, and gas tax) as travel shuts down that is compounded by the long-term impacts of potentially reduced federal and state funding. Most agencies already have faced significant revenue losses due to COVID-19. Diversification of funding sources is critical. In addition to direct user fees, consider use of tolling, annual fixed user fees on electric vehicles, transitions to road user charging programs, and use of rainy-day funds. There is potential for cost savings from employees working at home. The reduction in vehicle miles traveled may reduce the need for expensive congestion relief projects. Federal assistance is essential. Agencies must be proactive in learning about and understanding any changed or expanded eligibility of existing federal assistance programs such as the FHWA and FTA Emergency Relief Programs. For COVID-19, FTA ER funding was expanded for emergency-related capital and operating expenses including the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) in states where the governor has declared an emergency. For major national emergencies, Congress may pass legislation providing additional funding. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, in response to COVID-19, allocated $2.2 trillion in support to individuals, businesses, and organizations affected by the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn. Transportation agencies were eligible for CARES Act funding for operating and capital expenses. Documenting damages related to a pandemic is critical, for both existing federal funding, or if future federal funding or grant opportunities become available. Unintended consequences Well-intended actions for public safety may have unintended consequences. Closing rest areas to limit the spread of a pandemic may save costs and protect workers, but long-distance truckers, interstate logistics, and the critical supply chains are adversely impacted by this policy. DOTs responded in various ways to the needs of truckers during COVID-19âsome opened selected rest areas and weigh stations for overnight parking, some set up temporary portable More information is found in the Finance Play. A Pandemic Playbook for Transportation Agencies 16
toilets and kept the rest areas as a whole closed, some allowed food trucks to operate in rest areas, and most informed truckers through established information networks. Transit agencies instituted new contact-less fare policies to reduce interactions between riders and operators. Some eliminated fares altogether. Concerns arose that the free services were encouraging undesired behaviors. In Cincinnati, officials re-instituted fares to discourage people from violating the stateâs stay-at-home order. In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) changed its approach to enforcing mask requirements after a widely shared video of a passenger being removed from a bus for not wearing a face covering. DOTs and transit agencies should consult with their in-house experts, federal partners, and other key external stakeholders in a timely fashion prior to implementing broad new policies. Monitoring the implementation of the policies and making timely adjustments when necessary will minimize the impacts of unintended consequences. A Pandemic Playbook for Transportation Agencies 17