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News / Clark County News

C-Tran cleans buses several times a day to guard health, safety of riders, workers

Clark County transit system wasn't part of study that showed traces of drugs on public transit

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 21, 2023, 6:03am
2 Photos
Gaby Soltero of C-Tran cleans a Fourth Plain Vine bus Wednesday at the VanMall Transit Center. A study conducted by the University of Washington released earlier this month found small amounts of methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine were traceable on buses and trains operated by large transit agencies in Washington and Oregon.
Gaby Soltero of C-Tran cleans a Fourth Plain Vine bus Wednesday at the VanMall Transit Center. A study conducted by the University of Washington released earlier this month found small amounts of methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine were traceable on buses and trains operated by large transit agencies in Washington and Oregon. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A dozen people hopped off The Vine as it arrived at the Van Mall Transit Center Wednesday morning. Gaby Soltero, wearing black and neon orange, hopped on.

Soltero, a transit field service worker, had about 10 minutes to wipe down the bus’ major touch points with cleaning solution, including the seats, railings and handles, and clean up anything that had been left behind. Then the bus turned around and departed for Turtle Place downtown.

Soltero estimates that she cleans 40 buses a day. On that particular bus she didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The most common remnants are cigarettes or leftovers from people rolling cannabis blunts.

Drugs on public transit have been in the spotlight after a study conducted by the University of Washington released earlier this month found small amounts of methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine were traceable on buses and trains operated by Sound Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit, Everett Transit and TriMet.

Although the study did not assess the health impacts on riders and operators, the amounts found were too low to produce physical effects from short term exposure, according to the directors of the poison centers in Oregon and Washington, Dr. Robert Hendrickson and Dr. Scott Phillips.

“(I)ndividuals who use public transportation for travel needs should continue to feel safe doing so,” they said.

“This is reflective of the volume of drug use currently in our communities and a reminder for the community to develop solutions to decrease drug use over the long term,” they added.

C-Tran was not a part of the study. Eric Florip, the manager of communications and marketing at C-Tran, said that drug use aboard C-Tran vehicles has not changed since before the pandemic.

“Drugs are a societal problem, they’re not only a transit problem,” Florip said. “So to the extent that it’s been an issue in our community there’s a residual carryover to public spaces that might include public transit, but I don’t think it’s necessarily specific to transit.”

“Anecdotally, I’m not aware of a significant change (since before the pandemic) and certainly not active drug use on transit vehicles over the past couple years,” Florip said.

TriMet reported 61 workers’ compensation claims between February 2021 and June 2023 in which employees immediately sought medical treatment after concerns of exposure to secondhand drug smoke. No tests completed came back positive for drugs.

For C-Tran, there have been two workers’ compensation claims related to suspected drug-related exposure since the start of 2021, according to Florip. In both cases tests and follow-ups were negative.

UW study finds drugs

The UW team collected and analyzed 78 air samples and 102 surface samples from 30 buses and train cars — about 1 percent of the 2,743 transit vehicles operated by the agencies.

Of the 78 air samples, 25 percent had a detectable level of fentanyl and 100 percent had detectable methamphetamine. Of the 102 surface samples, 46 percent had detectable fentanyl and 98 percent had detectable methamphetamine. Researchers found cocaine in 45 percent of tested samples.

The amount of fentanyl in the air samples is thousands of times lower than a dose that would be used to treat pain in a hospital, according to Hendrickson.

In a statement, TriMet said its goal is to keep drugs off transit, but Oregon law poses challenges to keeping drugs out of public spaces.

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“Our riders, operators and other employees deserve to use our system without being exposed to drug use,” said TriMet General Manager Sam Desue, Jr. “More needs to be done to ensure that transit and other public spaces are safe and comfortable for everyone.”

C-Tran

Although C-Tran was not a part of the study, the results were not necessarily a surprise to its leadership.

“I 100 percent agree with TriMet’s statement that we as a collective need to take a harder line against offenders of transit policies,” said CEO Shawn Donaghy at a Sept. 12 board meeting.

Donaghy added that drugs and homelessness are not a transit-specific challenge, but rather a societal one.

“People typically tend to lean on public transit to excuse public norms that they would not excuse in city hall, they would not excuse at the grocery store,” he said. “There are large transit agencies that are often tasked with solving the houseless issue and that is often not necessarily a transit problem. It doesn’t mean we can’t help, but it means that it’s a societal issue.”

C-Tran’s policy is that if someone uses drugs on a bus or engages in other prohibited behavior, the bus should be pulled over as soon as it’s safe to do so, and the offender removed from the bus. The bus would then be taken out of service until it’s cleaned and disinfected.

C-Tran vehicles are cleaned several times a day, specifically while idling in between trips and every night at the maintenance yard where they also are fueled and serviced.

Additionally, every vehicle goes through a scheduled major cleaning where everything on the interior and exterior gets cleaned. Major cleans can take an entire shift.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer