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The bus stops here: After one month, Metro says the restoration of service is running smoothly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 1, 2009 - One month into Metro's restoration of some of the massive service cuts made in March, officials say the plan is running relatively smoothly.

However, they are reluctant to talk about how many people have actually returned to the bus, saying it's much too soon to discern a trend.

August ridership figures won't be available until well into September, said Jessica Mefford-Miller, chief of planning and system development. Even then it will be "really too soon to tell," she said.

When a tax increase failed in the county last fall, the agency had to slash its service because it lacked the money to operate at the same level it had been. The cuts, implemented March 30, came at a time public transit seemed to be on the upswing.

A one-time emergency grant from the Missouri Legislature in July and the federal government's decision to allow the use of some federal stimulus money enabled Metro to restore on Aug. 3 some of the service it had cut. Because of restrictions on federal money, Metro could not restore all the routes it cut so it restructured some of them as new routes.

Miller says she and her team have been in the field "interacting quite a bit" with riders, but any discussion about how much ridership has returned would be "largely anecdotal."

She added: "You don't want to draw conclusions about system ridership based on a few disparate observations. We don't like to make broad brush trends until we have about a quarter (three months) of data."

Building ridership

When new service is launched, it takes time to discover if the public is going to use it, she said. "You've got to put the service out there for a little while -- let people find out about it, test it and then adjust their travel patterns to take advantage of that new service," she added.

Building ridership is a long process, Mefford-Miller said.

She pointed to the cross-county MetroLink expansion that opened in August 2006. "Prior to the (March 30) service reductions, we were still seeing the upward trend in ridership from new people coming aboard that system" she said. "The service enhancements we put into effect on Aug. 3 were much smaller scale so they won't have that very long growth trend, but we need at least a quarter to say this route's performing well or that route's performing poorly."

Monthly ridership figures are not as "statistically valid for the planning people" as quarterly or yearly figures, Dianne Williams, Metro spokeswoman said. "They can't make plans until they have real facts."

Still, some routes implemented Aug. 3 are picking up more than others with restored routes and expanded routes attracting more riders than the brand-new routes, Mefford-Miller said. "It's hard when you're trying to build a market. You don't build any kind of market in two or three weeks' time."

"Some local routes are very light, but they will pick up," she said.

The agency plans to beef up its marketing of the 99 Downtown Circulator route, one that's experiencing light use, to attract more riders -- including tourists, Mefford-Miller said.

"We expected it (the Downtown Circulator route) to be light," she said. "It's a brand new route so it's not like one of our restored routes that already had a market developed."

Metro is also introducing its new routes in a marketing plan targeting employers, she said.

Listening to riders

One thing Metro officials do want to talk about is the agency's rapport with the public.

"Feedback from the public both before and after the service restoration has been very positive," Mefford-Miller said. She also noted that the public involvement in the development of the final restoration plan was at a "higher level" than in the past, "and that is positive."

Metro call center reps handled 36 percent more customer calls a day during the week of Aug. 3 when the restoration took place than during the month of July, she said.

"These were people who were having their route restored or maybe one of the new modified routes was coming to their area and they wanted to learn how they could get back on the system."

The agency has received few complaints about the restoration itself, she said. "We had a few requests for service that we weren't able to provide and requests to modify routes but that was pretty minor; it's been quieter (in terms of complaints) than we had initially anticipated."

Tweaking fall schedules

Currently Metro is preparing for its routine quarterly service change in early fall.  These service changes give Metro an opportunity to adjust routes and times -- to respond to construction schedules and to make transferssmoother, something that's always needed after a new service plan is launched.

"The adjustments are going to be very minor," Mefford-Miller said. "Most customers won't even notice them, and that's a good sign when we don't have a huge amount of things that need to be fixed. This fall we'll be dealing with the (Interstate 64) construction, for example, and that's going to change some of our schedules," she said. "The changes won't be disruptive. We're talking about shifting a route three minutes here and two minutes there to add time to or take time away from routes."

When new service is launched, assumptions are made about how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B, Mefford-Miller said. "The Aug. 3 system is a new system. Now that it's out there, we've been testing those assumptions and in some cases have found we need to add a little more time to some lines or take some time away so customers can make those transfer trips."

What will the quarterly service change mean for riders? Not much, Williams said. The changes are so slight, riders may not notice them "other than they're making that connection more easily than they used to," she said.

An uncertain future

As for how long riders can count on the restored service getting them where they need to go, that depends on how long the money lasts.

"We've been saying 10 and a half months or sometime in May 2010," Mefford-Miller said. "We don't have a target date just yet." One determining factor is the amount of money riders drop in the fare box.

"If (fare box revenue does) very well, we might be able to get more time out of it. If it performs poorly, we might only be able to go until May."

Officials worry that financial woes will accelerate for agencies like Metro because of dwindling sales-tax revenue as consumers continue to bite the bullet.

"At this time we don't have any funds that we can really count on," Mefford-Miller said. "We're trying to be very honest with our customers and the community about when the service will expire. Obviously, we'd like to keep that service, but it's going to require revenue to do so. It's been a big source of uncertainty for our customers because they want to come back, but we have this expiration looming over our heads. Since they've already experienced the pain of the service reductions, it's a little more real."

Officials will decide late winter or early spring how long the restored service will last, she said.

One sliver of hope: The federal government is becoming "somewhat more flexible allowing some stimulus funds to be used for service," instead of only capital improvements, Williams said.

"Every transit agency in the country that's facing financial problems is hoping for exactly what we are -- sustainable sources of revenue that allow the transit agency to plan for what has been a growing demand."

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