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With restored service, many - but not all - Metro riders are back on board

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2009 - For some bus riders, Metro's partial restoration in August of the service it cut in March meant they could once again get to and from their destinations.

But for others, the restoration did little or nothing to ease their transportation problems. Even if their bus was brought back -- and some weren't -- new times and routings could still leave them without service.

And even for those whose buses were rolling once more, the uneasy feeling that the routes could be cut again keeps them from hopping back onboard.

Overall, the latest figures from Metro show a decline compared to August 2008 before the service cuts and restoration. This August, the system was down 19.6 percent, with 4.08 million boardings. The year-to-year numbers are not entirely comparable since new routes have been introduced, say Metro officials. Broken down, the numbers from Metro look like this:

  • MetroBus had 2.4 million boardings, down 23 percent
  • MetroLink had 1.6 million boardings, off 13.5 percent
  • Call-A-Ride had 45,063 calls, off 24.9 percent

Ray Friem, Metro's chief operating officer of Transit Services, said it’s too soon to assess the success of the restoration with one month’s ridership figures. "I don’t want to characterize myself as surprised or disappointed but I’m a little bit of both,” he said.
Metro officials have said repeatedly that it takes at least three months of ridership figures to decide whether a given route is performing well.

"Really until I have October’s numbers, I don’t even try to analyze what’s going on too much," Friem said.

    Uneasy adjustments

    When Metro cut her bus route at the end of March, Joan Blatz of St. Louis bought a bike to ride to the MetroLink train she takes to get to her job at the Washington University Medical School.

    Since March she's lost 18 pounds -- the good news -- but she's also driving her car more, mostly when the weather doesn't cooperate -- the bad news because Blatz likes to promote the use of public transportation.

    Blatz started taking the bus more than two years ago when her employer offered Metro passes to those willing to give up their parking spaces. With the pass, she would take a bus from the Ronald McDonald House on Park Avenue where she is a house parent to MetroLink, which would take her to the Central West End.

    "It was great," she said.

    After finishing at the Ronald McDonald House at 7:30 a.m., she would simply cross the street to catch the No. 13 Union bus to take her to the Grand MetroLink station for a train or straight to the Central West End in time to start work at 8 a.m.

    At 5 p.m. when she got off work, Blatz would walk a short distance to catch the same bus she took in the morning. It would drop her a half block from the Ronald McDonald House.

    "It was great because if I worked a little late, I could catch the train and then catch either the No. 70 bus or the No. 13 on Grand and ride it down to Park," Blatz said.

    But after Metro's cuts, the No. 13 bus came too late for her to get to work on time. Instead, she had to walk to Grand to catch the No. 70 bus and then connect to a later train.

    The Grand bus was not one of Metro's budget casualties but "it is so crowded it's hard to get on," Blatz said.

    Since March Blatz has been riding her bike about a mile to the Grand MetroLink station. When she gets off at the Central West End stop, she rides her bike to her job at Forest Park and Euclid. In the evenings, she rides her bike all the way home.

    "I drive my car when it's raining because I am not experienced enough to ride my bike in the rain," Blatz said.

    Ava Yelvington, a St. Louisan who felt the sting of Metro's March cuts, said the restoration "has had no effect for me."

    Yelvington, who sets up coffee banquets at conferences for a downtown hotel, doesn't drive. With the reduced Metro service, she could not get to her job until 5:30 a.m., a half hour later than her starting time. Her boss allowed her to start work at 5:30 a.m. but she has the same amount of work to do in a shorter time, she said.

    While she sometimes uses the Downtown Circulator bus, she finds herself still using MetroLink because it's "much quicker including the slightly longer walk."

    But the restoration hasn't helped her otherwise.

    "None of the bus routes I use have increased frequency or arrive any earlier so that I can reach my work place at 5 a.m.," she said. "I still lose a half hour of much needed prep time."

    Off the bus 

    While Blatz was buying her bike, Jane Suozzi of Ballwin was putting together a vanpool, helped by the nonprofit RideFinders. Since March Suozzi's vanpool takes her and other former bus riders from West County to their jobs downtown. Despite the lost flexibility with the van -- if she missed a bus she could take a later one -- Suozzi loves the vanpool. And she was surprised to find that because of the number of people in her pool, it's actually cheaper than taking the bus.

    When Metro announced restoration of some service, Suozzi wondered: Would the vanpoolers switch back to taking the bus? The answer: not so much.

    "So far, we've lost only two (van poolers), and that may be temporary," Suozzi, who is a Ballwin alderman, said.

    One vanpooler, a visually impaired woman, is back to walking her son to school "and then catching the 58X (old route brought back) at New Ballwin Park," Suozzi said. The woman opted for the bus to save her husband from driving her to the van. "They have timing issues with his job and when she can get her son" to school, Suozzi said.

    The woman continues to pay her vanpool fee "as a fallback, for the time being," says Suozzi.

    "Unless there's some break to using the bus or there's a need like hers, no one wants to ditch the van," she added.

    Another vanpooler went back to the bus because her employer subsidizes the pass and "it only costs her $10," Suozzi said. A new person is joining the vanpool, Suozzi added, so "the cost has still not risen to $68 a person," the cost of a bus pass.

    Feelings of Relief

    Still, the restoration has been good for some riders. "I live in Chesterfield where we had to do without from March to August," Kathy Fish, a frequent bus rider, said. "I am glad to have it back."

    The Downtown Circulator, a new route Metro launched in the restoration program, is a winner with bus rider Perez Eric Maxwell. After the cuts, the bus he caught near his home at Martin Luther King and Goodfellow to his job at the Old Post Office downtown no longer went beyond 14th Street. Instead, he had to transfer from his bus to a MetroLink train at the Civic Center. Now he catches the 99 Downtown Circulator there.

    He could still take Metro-Link -- "there is no significant time change in my arrival time," he says -- but he takes the bus because he wants Metro to keep the downtown route.

    "I'm supporting the Downtown Circulator because Metro is numbers driven, and MetroLink has good numbers for the morning commute," Maxwell said. Metro has said that ridership on the Downtown Circulator has been light.

    Maxwell likes the restoration but adds, "There's still room for improvement." Some routes don't run frequently enough, he said.  "We had grown accustomed to buses running every 30 minutes on most routes, but that isn't across the board even with the partial restoration. Service between Chesterfield and Clayton during the midday leaves a lot to be desired." 

    For Emma Perry of Oakville, who says she lost some hard-won independence when Metro cut its routes, the restoration means she can get out again.

    Call-A-Ride, Metro's affordable van service used mainly by the disabled, was a ticket to freedom for Perry, who suffers from a rare muscular disease and uses a wheel chair.

    By federal law, Metro must operate Call-a-Ride within three-quarters of a mile of a bus route. After the cuts, Call-A-Ride services at a reduced rate disappeared along the slashed bus routes, leaving Perry without transportation. While Perry could still get Call-A-Ride service, the fares were comparable to a taxi -- and out of reach for her.

    The restored bus routes gave Perry Call-A-Ride service to all of the places she likes to go: the public library, Ronnie's Cinema, and a nursing home where she volunteers. But Perry is disappointed that she still can't get affordable van rides to church and Bible study because the bus route to her church was not restored.

    "My church is very important to me," she said. "It's kind of my lifeline."

    Still, Perry is happy that she can get to her other destinations although she knows the restoration is temporary. Without new revenue, Metro officials say, service cuts will be back probably early next year, they say.

    "I just really hope they'll get more funding," she says of Metro. "I'm just hoping. All I can do is hope."

    Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered transportation.