WINNIPEG -- Winnipeg Transit will start gradually reducing service over the next two weeks, due to a drop in ridership caused by the pandemic.

In a release sent Wednesday morning, the city said it has seen a significant reduction in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in the city laying off 253 drivers temporarily, and reducing bus routes.

“Today, the stark realities are requiring a change of course,” said Mayor Brian Bowman during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The city said ridership has declined 72 per cent compared to this time last year, and revenue from Winnipeg Transit has declined an estimated 74 per cent. The city estimates the decline is costing them approximately $6 million per month.

“For a service that’s already heavily subsidized, we’ve reached the point where we can’t continue along the same course, and unfortunately temporary layoffs are in fact required,” said Bowman.

The layoffs include 229 permanent drivers, and 24 non-permanent drivers. Permanent drivers will be laid off effective May 3, while non-permanent drivers will be laid off between May 1 and 22, as training is completed.

In addition to layoffs, the weekday transit schedule will shift to an enhanced Saturday and Sunday schedule on May 4.

The adjusted schedule will include all bus routes that operate on Saturdays, plus a number of additional bus routes that do not normally run on weekends, such as express buses, and buses that serve industrial parks.

Adjusted schedules will be posted on Thursday, and residents are reminded to check bus schedules to ensure their route is running. The city said the adjusted schedule will result in 221 fewer buses on the road.

In addition, Winnipeg Transit will no longer be offering overtime for transit operators, saying daily service might be impacted. Overtime was being used to help maintain transit schedules, but the city said the reduced ridership means the practice will be discontinued.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 is asking the city to reconsider the layoffs.

“I’m extremely disappointed that frontline staff are getting axed when there’s a lot of other fat to be trimmed,” said Romeo Ignacio ATU 1505 Local President in a written statement. “It is unacceptable that management didn’t even give us a courtesy call, before they began notifying our members of the lay off while they were on the job.”

“Public transit is an essential service right now during COVID-19 and will be key to our economic and social recovery after the fact,” said James Van Gerwen ATU 1505 Executive Vice President, in a written statement. “Our members, who have been putting their lives on the line during these trying times, quite frankly, deserve better from their employer than to be punted to the curb like this.”

The city said it will continue to monitor the situation, and resume regular bus service when it is safe to do so. Bus operators will be hired back once regular service resumes.