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Metro starts the wheels rolling for Aug. 3 restoration of service

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2009 - As the calendar speeds toward Aug. 3, the day Metro plans to restore some of the MetroBus and Call-A-Ride service it suspended March 30, a flurry of activity is underway behind the scenes.

Getting the wheels rolling again takes a lot more effort than simply recalling drivers and putting buses on the streets.

Routes must be planned and tested, schedules printed and distributed, "mothballed" vehicles made road-ready and drivers called back and checked for current certification.

None of that is accomplished on a dime. In fact, says Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams, the few weeks it's taking Metro to restore service after learning it will get state and federal money to help it through the crunch is a "very compressed schedule."

Normally, she says, it would take "easily twice as long" to do what the agency is doing -- creating and expanding routes and staffing them to "do the most good for the most people with the money we have."

To get an idea of big the job is, consider this: When Metro scrubbed some service in March, about 2,300 bus stops were "temporarily suspended," Williams said. On Aug. 3, most of those stops will be reinstated -- to some degree or other.

"We've been able to use the money to touch about 2,000 of them -- not with the same frequency, certainly, but that's going to give a lot more people more access," she added.

The restoration funds include the Missouri Legislature's one-time emergency infusion of $12 million and $3.8 million Metro will get for each of two years from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. Still, that's far short of the agency's $50 million shortfall.

Routes of change

Metro staff began planning weeks ago by determining which routes would be brought back, modified or created, said Jessica Mefford-Miller, acting chief of planning and system development. Metro also adjusted the routes based on comments from riders.

Determining which routes to restore is no easy task -- especially if you consider that, before March 30, Metro served 574 square miles in Illinois and Missouri with buses operating on 1,850 miles of roads. The service cuts reduced MetroBus service by 36 percent and Call-A-Ride service, used largely by the disabled, by 15 percent. (MetroLink service, which will not see restorations, was cut by almost 20 percent.)

"New routes filled in some of the holes in south (St. Louis) county, south city and northeast St. Louis County," Mefford-Miller said. The money is also paying for increased frequency on more popular routes, she added.

Adding and expanding bus routes automatically increases Call-A-Ride service because federal regulations require Metro to provide van service for the disabled within three-quarters of mile of a transit route.

"Call-A-Ride service will now be available everywhere within Interstate 270 and a lot of those holes outside of 270 are filled," Mefford-Miller said. "That impacts a lot of people, especially in south St. Louis County."

Once a route is determined, Metro staff makes sure "the 30- or 40-foot bus can actually make a turn from this street onto that street" before maps are drawn up, Williams said. "You also have to create running times. You have to know how long it's going to take the bus and the bus driver to accomplish that run."

With the route established and mileage determined "you start to have an idea of the manpower you're going to need back to handle those miles and those hours," Williams said. That manpower includes not only drivers but also mechanics to service the vehicles.

Once a route is set, ADA announcements must be created for it.

"For the American with Disabilities Act, you have to make sure that someone who is not sighted knows when to get off the bus," Williams said. "For example, if I'm on the Grand bus and I'm coming up to Delmar, several seconds before I arrive at Delmar, the bus will say, 'Arriving Delmar'."

For buses equipped with an automated vehicle locator, route announcements are programmed to present automatically. For other buses "we have to create an announcement sheet for an operator to use," Williams said.

Metro staff members must also establish codes for "head signs," those signs at the front of the bus that tell riders its route and destination.

"The code has to be created for new routes so the operator knows what to plug in the morning or afternoon when they leave," she said.

Behind the scenes preparation

The behind-the-scene tasks don't stop there. Printing the multi-fold bus schedules can take up to six weeks -- meaning routes must be set well before Aug. 3 so the printed schedules will be available to customers.

"For the passengers who don't go to the website -- and many don't -- you have the schedules for each route," Williams said.

And, the information also has to be plugged into the agency's website.

"All the bus stops -- and remember, we're putting 2,000 back -- also have to be entered in the computer for things like Google Maps and our local TripFinder," she added.

Bringing back drivers also takes time. By union contract, drivers bid by seniority on which garage they want to work from, Williams said. "If I live in Illinois, I'd really rather not drive out of DeBaliviere, for example. Once the locations are set, I have the right to bid on the job I want -- which route I'd like to drive and what days I'd like to drive. "

Metro is giving drivers three days to tell the agency if they will be back after they receive a certified letter to return to work, Williams said. "You have three days to say, 'Yeah, I want my job back' or 'No, sorry I won the lottery. I don't care about you anymore' and we go on to the next person on the seniority list."

Operators must have a current commercial drivers license and a license from the Department of Transportation. And if they haven't driven for 90 days, they also have to pass a Department of Transportation physical and take a drug test, she said.

Even though the buses have been out of service for only a few months and were started weekly, maintenance takes a front seat in preparations.

Air-conditioning refrigerant that was pumped into built-in storage compartments onboard the buses to avoid an environmental hazard must be pumped back into the operating side of the bus, Williams said.

Crews check tires for slow leaks that may have flattened them, recharge batteries and take the buses out for road tests.

And then there's those signs at the 2,000 bus stops that have been out of use. When service was suspended in March, crews installed signs over the bus stop signs telling riders service would be suspended. Now they have to replace them with new signs giving information about the new routes.

Metro is hanging on to the signs that are coming down. They may be needed again, Williams said, because the hard reality Metro must convey is that the restoration is temporary.

We don't want to "give people the false impression that this money is permanent because it's not," she said.

"The money from the state is (for) one year, and the CMAQ money is for two. We don't want people getting on and off the bus on Olive west of 270 thinking, 'Fine, I'm in the clear' because, truth be told, if there's not a permanent sustainable source of funding, that bus stop's going away again and probably in the foreseeable future."

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