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One month later, many Metro riders still struggling with cuts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2009 - For many MetroLink riders at the Clayton station on a recent morning, the cuts Metro made a month ago are little more than a slight inconvenience as they waited a few extra minutes for their train.

But for Metro users who take the bus for part or all of their trip, the cuts have been -- and continue to be -- painful. Riders get up earlier to catch their bus or train, wait longer for connections, walk farther to and from their stops, miss connections and, in some instances, watch as buses roll by without stopping because they're so full.

And for riders of 14 express routes and nine local routes, the impact was even harsher -- their buses disappeared entirely when Metro slashed bus service March 30.

Scrambling in the city

Shawn Bullock had heard about Metro's cuts, but he figured they didn't have anything to do with him. After all, reports said most of the cuts involved bus routes west and south of Interstate 270. He lives in the city and rides one of Metro's most popular bus routes -- as well as MetroLink -- to get to work.

But when the cuts went into effect, Bullock, like many Metro users, wished he had paid more attention to the details of Metro's new schedule. Though his bus was neither eliminated nor rerouted, it came less often -- meaning longer waits and more people trying to get on each bus.

"I really wasn't expecting a big impact because I'm in a high volume area," Bullock said. "I was wrong."

Bullock catches a bus in front of the St. Louis Bread Co. on South Grand and takes it three miles to a MetroLink station where he switches to the train to get to Washington Avenue where he works as an email analyst manager.

"I have to get up a little earlier or wait a little longer for a bus," he says.

The commute that used to take 20 to 30 minutes can take 15 minutes longer. One day it took 45 minutes because two buses "just went by," he said. Bullock said he tries to get a ride home from work since Metro takes even longer in the afternoon -- sometimes an hour more because of fewer buses.

"It's definitely more of an aggravation," he said. "You rarely find a seat. You usually have to stand because it's pretty crowded. It's public transportation, I understand that, but it's definitely not appealing or comfortable when you ride anymore."

Bullock has a car but "tries not to drive," he said The bus pass his employer provides is an added incentive to leave the car home, but he also does it to help the environment.

"It's the responsible thing to do," he said. "I don't need to drive." But the appeal will fade fast if riding the bus becomes "a hassle," he said.

Perez Eric Maxwell, who lives near Martin Luther King and Goodfellow, also finds getting to his job at the old Post Office downtown is taking longer. A MetroLink train drops him just a block away. That's the easy part. The trick is getting to that MetroLink train.

He used to take a bus straight downtown but now, with the cuts, he transfers to a train because buses no longer go beyond 14th Street. That takes 40 to 45 minutes. "The distance is the same, but the time is a little longer," he said. "You can't take the bus into downtown anymore."

Maxwell began using Metro when his car was "totally destroyed" a few years ago.

"It's just more convenient and more economical. I can read my graphic novels and not have to worry about other cars. It's just easier and faster. If I could use it everywhere I needed to go, I would."

For some Metro users the changes are more than the inconvenience of waiting 10 or 15 minutes longer.

Like Ava Yelvington, a St. Louis resident who works at a hotel downtown setting up coffee banquets for conferences. "It (Metro cuts) has definitely impacted my travel time and workload," she said.

A non-driver, she takes MetroBus and MetroLink to and from work. Normally she starts work at 5 a.m., but with the service cuts, she can't get downtown until 5:30 a.m. Her boss has been "kind of cool," allowing her to come in later, but she still has to do the same amount of work in a shorter time to have the coffee banquets ready between 6 and 7:30 a.m.

"My workload has not diminished," she said. "I just don't have the time needed to do (it) now." She has to enlist her supervisor to help her get the work done in time, she added.

Getting home is also a challenge. With students getting out of school and people going home from work, the Grand bus is very crowded in the afternoons, she says. "People who get off the Metro trains get on the Grand bus and it's standing room only. It's almost impossible to get off at your stop because people are so sandwiched in." The bus she takes used to run every 15 minutes. "And it was crowded then," she said.

Yellington also has safety concerns. "Last Saturday I had to be at work at 5:30 a.m. so I got to the Civic Center transfer station around 5 a.m." She then discovered that the first train she needed did not get to that station until 5:38.

"I had to walk from the Civic Center transfer center on 14th to my job on Broadway," she said. "It was very frightening to walk those deserted streets. If I had waited for the train it would have made me at least 15-20 minutes late. I wonder why Metro would have a bus arriving so early if no trains run until more than 30 minutes later."

Yelvington said the weekends are the hardest. "On certain nights of the week I can't even get a MetroBus home. I have to call a cab or hitch a ride with somebody that happens to be getting off at the same time."

Getting out to Chesterfield

The areas south and west of I-270 where Metro eliminated regular bus service have been hard hit, leaving many workers with no way to get to and from work.

Officials from hospitals and the so-called "nursing home row" told Metro they worried that they would lose housekeepers, cooks and nurses who live in the city or inner-ring suburbs and would be left with no way to get to work.

Chesterfield was so concerned about the situation that it came up with money for a public-private partnership with Metro to create a new route -- the 98 -- to keep one bus running to Chesterfield Mall.

One of those who worried about the cuts was Rhonda Uhlenbrock, administrator of Garden View Care Center.

Since March 30, Uhlenbrock has lost two housekeepers because of transportation. Laura Buxton, a cook at the facility featured in an earlier Beacon story, feared she would have to quit her job because she wouldn't have a way to get to work. Buxton, who lives in Illinois, does not drive and takes two buses and a MetroLink train to get to work.

"Laura and her sister are still employed here," Uhlenbrock said recently. They ride the new 98 bus, but it does not follow the route of the bus they used to take so they have a mile longer walk to the facility. "As long as the weather's nice, that's fine," Uhlenbrock said.

One nursing home worker called the Metro cuts "horrible -- especially on weekends." She says the weekend service is so bad she sometimes stays at a nearby motel so she can get to work on time on Saturday or Sunday. She declined to give her name because she was fearful about the safety of her home while she's away.

Eric, a medical technician who works at St. John's Hospital in Creve Coeur, often has to work 12-hour shifts. When the shifts begin or end during non-rush hour times, especially on the weekends, connections are so infrequent that he arrives at work three hours before his shift begins. Eric declined to give his last name.

"It's terrible," he said of the cuts. "MetroLink is not bad, but the buses are slow. And they're not on time anymore." Besides the time he loses in travel, Eric says he now has a two-mile walk between the bus and his home.

And sometimes drivers not familiar with the route compound problems.

On a recent day, a rider named Mary, who declined to give her last name, worked through lunch and got on a bus at 2:30 p.m. for a physical therapist appointment near Chippewa and Kingshighway. Because the driver didn't know the route, he drove "around the north and south outer roads three times," she said. "I did not get to my physical therapy appointment until 5 o'clock. That's two and a half hours."

Call-A-Ride hit hard

Perhaps no group has been hurt by the Metro cuts as much as the system's Call-A-Ride users, many of whom are disabled.

Federal law requires that Metro offer Call-A-Ride within three-quarters of a mile of every bus stop or light rail station for people with an ADA card. When the bus routes were cut, so was Call-A-Ride.

Sarah Coyle, who works for Paraquad, an agency that helps the disabled to live independently, uses Call-A-Ride herself.

Coyle has limited mobility due to complications of dwarfism and uses a power chair to get around. She lives in Des Peres, beyond the I-270 line, and can no longer get service to her home without a huge fare increase.

So, Coyle's father drops her at Plaza Frontenac, which is within the Call-A-Ride area, where a van picks her up and takes her to her job in the city. Coyle must be prepared to wait up to a half hour for the van since drivers have 15 minutes on either side of the pick-up time for the van to reach them.

After work, a Call-A-Ride van takes Coyle to Plaza Frontenac where her father picks her up. It's a procedure greatly aided by the cell phone because Call-A-Ride routes can vary each day depending on other stops and pick-ups along the way. The trip can take as much as 90 minutes, Coyle said.

"I have to get ready earlier in the morning," she said. "It's made things more difficult."

Coyle also uses Call-A-Ride to meet friends, go to the mall or attend social meetings. Because it's so cumbersome now, she finds herself going out less often. "It has been a big change," she says. "You have to plan things out more, and it curbs your independence."

Besides the service cuts, Call-A-Ride users have been hurt by the fare changes, Erika Ebsworth-Goold, director of communications and public relations for ARC, said.

"It's have been pretty hard to swallow for a lot of our folks," she said. "They obviously rely on Call-A-Ride to get from place to place, to get to programs, to get to work."

Some Call-A-Ride users who thought their rides were safe because they live within the I-270 line found out their $4 ride jumped in price because the bus line was cut. "Instead of paying $4 a ride, it becomes a lot more expensive," Ebsworth-Goold said. "In some cases, they might still have the ride available, but it's just cost prohibitive."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on transportation.