Ben Franklin Transit, Via offer new on-demand service

Ongoing safety measures

To protect Ben Franklin Transit passengers and drivers, all vehicles and facilities are disinfected daily and social distancing measures are in place, including no fare collection and rear-door bus entry until further notice.

BFT offers these reminders for riders:

  • Passengers are encouraged to wear face coverings.
  • If you are not feeling well, do not take public transportation. Call your health care provider before you leave your home and follow their guidance.
  • Public transportation should only be used for essential trips, including for food/grocery needs, medical appointments, pharmacy and work.

Ben Franklin Transit has launched a new on-demand transit service to connect riders to the places they need to travel to most during the COVID-19 crisis.

The new service—called BFT Connect—is powered by Via, a New York City-based company that provides an app, drivers and vans in cities across the world, under a $6.6 million, three-year contract approved by the Ben Franklin Transit Board of Directors earlier this year. The contract includes two one-year extensions. 

Originally scheduled to launch in early April as a first-and-last mile service that would extend access to public transit, it’s been temporarily transformed to support residents and essential workers during the pandemic.

Under normal operations, connections will include major bus stops and transit centers for a $3 fee.

But normal operations have been anything but as the pandemic hit. 

The Richland-based transit agency is offering free BFT Connect service to pharmacies, grocery stores and health clinics with front door drop-off and pickup at selected locations.

Free fares will be in place during the state of emergency until future notice.

Here’s how the new service works: Riders within service zones can request a ride directly through the free Via mobile app, which will direct passengers to a nearby corner for pickup.

It’s similar to Uber in that the Via app allows customers to see in real time their available trip options, how far away their driver is, and the estimated time of arrival.

Customers without smartphones can call to request rides.

Via provides the branded vans, hired the contracted drivers and developed the technology embedded in app to match rides and to transit points. The Via app can coordinate rides in any city or country where it operates.

Tri-City Via vans will take passengers to or from designated transit connections within the same zone.

Service to central Kennewick, Finley, Columbia Center, south and central Richland and east Pasco began May 11; service to West Richland and Badger Mountain began May 4; and service to west Pasco began April 20.

Right now only one passenger is allowed in each van per trip, though the service is intended to and will eventually be a shared ride service, with Via’s advanced algorithms allowing multiple riders to share a vehicle.

A second passenger will be allowed only as a companion traveling to and from the same destinations, and riders must sit in the back row of the vehicle to maintain proper social distancing from the driver.

Transit officials say it was necessary to offer the BFT service earlier than planned after it suspended five regular bus routes in Pasco and replaced them with two new interim routes on April 13. It was a necessary step as the agency works to maintain a balance between maximizing connectivity to essential services, adjusting for significantly decreased demand in response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, and managing changes in staffing availability.

“We have realized bringing it online now represents a value-added community service during this time of emergency and hardship for so many. It will allow us to help better meet the mobility needs of our riders and community at this critical time, give us flexibility to adapt to changes in staffing availability at BFT, and fill service gaps as they arise,” said BFT General Manager Gloria Boyce.

Once normal fare collection resumes, fares will be collected for BFT Connect rides through the Via app, cash or BFT tickets and passes.

The new service replaces the former Tri-City Feeder program, which halted in fall 2018 after its longtime contracted service provider unexpectedly announced it was closing its doors, and eventually will replace the General Demand program, which was put in place after the feeder program ceased. The General Demand program will be phased out as BFT Connect grows but will continue in Prosser and Benton City.

For details about the service, including how it works during and after the state of emergency, go to: bft.org/ConnectOnDemand.

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