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Metro gets $7 million in federal money to restore service

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2009 - Metro has more money -- $7 million in federal funds -- to work with as it starts to restore on Aug. 3 part of the service it cut in March. With the new money available, the restoration, initially paid for by $12 million in state funds, will add more routes and last a year.

The federal government is relaxing its restrictions on two funding sources enabling the transit agency to restore more routes for longer than planned. Despite earlier rulings, Metro can now use part of its Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds and up to 10 percent of its federal stimulus funds for operating costs.

The Federal Transit Administration last week reversed its earlier decision that the transit agency could not use CMAQ funds for operating expenses.

What you need to know

The routes that will be partially or completely funded by CMAQ money are called "hybrid routes." They include:

  • 6 Fenton Gravois Bluffs
  • 48 S. Lindbergh
  • 75 Florissant Clayton
  • 89 Hanley Chesterfield
  • 99 Downtown Shuttle

Changes in the revised restoration plan:
Additional routes:

  • 27 North County Shuttle
  • 8 Bates Macklind
  • 17 Oakville Laclede Station

Modified routes:

  • 18 Taylor
  • 42 Sarah
  • 66 Clayton Airport
  • 70 Grand
  • 97 Delmar
  • 91 Olive
  • 58X Twin Oaks Express
  • 174X Halls Ferry Express
  • 410X Eureka Express

In addition, the No. 91 Olive route will be enhanced.
Click here for a complete list of the current revisions.

Metro, through the East-West Council of Governments, had asked the transit administration if it could "flex" $12 million in CMAQ funds for operations. Typically, CMAQ funds can be used only on new routes that help reduce congestion and improve air quality.

But Metro officials said last week the transit administration told them the agency could use some of the funds for operating costs for some of the service it cut in the spring. Metro will get only a little over $7 million, almost $5 million short of its original request, because most of the CMAQ funds available to Missouri have already been allocated.

Ray Friem, Metro's operations director, said he learned Tuesday the agency will get $3.8 million this year and $3.6 million next year in CMAQ funds for operating expenses. The agency must match these grants with 20 percent of each amount. The money will fund five routes not in the restoration plan the agency approved earlier this month.

In addition, Congress recently decided to allow transit agencies to use 10 percent of their stimulus funding for operating expenses. Originally, the funds could be used for capital improvements only.

The money will help restore services that Metro made March 30 because of a $70 million budget shortfall after St. Louis County voters last fall rejected an increase in the sales tax that helps fund Metro.

Last month the agency announced a restoration plan using the $12 million from the state. At that time it said it could operate the designated routes for one year but would need another funding source to continue the routes after that time.

At the same time, Metro said it wanted comments and suggestions about the plan from the public. After soliciting those suggestions, Metro's Operations & Strategic Planning Committee earlier this month approved a revised restoration plan incorporating the public's requests. Friem said the committee will present the plan to the agency's board of commissioners at a public meeting Friday. Although the board doesn't have to vote on the plan, Friem says he expects it will.

Friem estimates that a third of the routes is being restored but notes that he won't know exactly until the process is completed.

Jessica Mefford-Miller, acting chief of planning and system development, said Metro planners faced a massive job in incorporating the public's suggestions. They added more frequent service to some heavily traveled routes, service to some areas that lacked it, and some additional Call-A-Ride routes.

Friem said at this point the restorations are still a work in progress. "This plan morphs and changes probably every four hours," he said, adding that nothing is final until the timetable goes to the printer next week.

The agency received 319 comments, mostly requests and recommendations.

"We had our whole planning group working on this in one facet or another," she said noting that the staff was working under a tight deadline.

"We actually catalogued their requests so we could classify them, group them and find out what the recurrent themes were and develop service revisions in response to them," Mefford-Miller said. "We've done this in the past, but we're enhancing our responsiveness to our customers, and this is something we'll be doing from this point forward."

The revisions are "more than small tweaks," she said. "We estimate the revised service plan answers about 90 percent of the requests we received."

Among the changes: new routes in south St. Louis County and in northeast county. "We already had two routes operating in South County -- the 17 Oakville and the 46 Tesson Ferry, both of which were eliminated, neither of which we proposed to restore. So we created a new route that actually covered just the more productive points of the 17 Oakville and the 46 Tesson Ferry and implemented that route in their place. ... It's nothing like the frequency we had before but it's some service for those communities. We did the same in south city and northeast county."

Based on suggestions from the public Metro also extended some routes it hadn't planned to. "For example, the 97 Delmar used to go all the way to the Clayton Station, but since March 30 it stopped at the Delmar Station," Mefford-Miller said. "We had a lot of customer comments about that, and it's a theme that was repeated frequently in the customer engagement so we took that route back to Clayton."

Metro also listened to its transit service managers and learned from them it could tweak "a couple of capacity issues we're having at our peak times," she said. "We also heard from businesses like Boeing that were unable to get third-shift employees to work so we added a trip on one of our routes to accommodate them. We've been able to do some creative things."

Still, she says, "It's not the level of service we once had prior to March 30."

Late last week, Mefford-Miller said funding for the revised plan would last only about 10 and a half months because of the additions. But with the stimulus funding and added farebox revenue Metro hopes the plan will bring, funding could last until the middle of next year.

But Friem cautioned the Band-Aid plan and its revisions are temporary. "This is all temporary funding," he said. "We have funding to operate maybe through the end of (next) June. We'll run it until the money runs out. Unless we can find a dedicated source of funding between now and then we're going to be right back here."

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