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Metro's service restoration shifts into gear on Monday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2010 - On Monday Metro will restore much of the service it cut in March 2009 -- but if you assumed your bus will be back, you might be disappointed. The "restoration" won't be a time warp back to March 29, 2009, the day before Metro made massive service cuts in the face of a major budget shortfall.

Ray Friem, Metro's chief operating officer of transit services, prefers to call Monday's change a "redefinition" of Metro's service.

"It's not exactly the exact footprint as before," he said. "But it's a pretty ambitious service package, the limiting factor being how many buses we actually have on hand right now."

Metro did a partial restoration with some modified routes after the state provided a one-time infusion of funds to help the agency last year. People have become comfortable with the routes they are using now and that presents a challenge, Friem said.

"Every time you (make changes), that creates angst; there's no way around it," he said.

So what can riders expect on Aug. 30?

"It really depends on where you are," Friem said. "Some people haven't had a bus for a year, and it's going to be back. Some riders are going to see profound changes in their service, and some aren't going to be very happy about some of it -- at least initially. It's going to be a mixed bag. There's no doubt about it."

Some routes are going to be "redirected," Friem said. That could mean a route has been split in two. That will help Metro meet its pledge to deliver service more cost effectively.

"Some of our very, very long lines with long running times have been cut in half," he said. The Lindbergh route, for example, originally used seven buses a day. "When we cut that line into two, we were actually able to make more efficient use of our manpower and we only require six buses on a service sequence," Friem said. The result: one less bus and two fewer operators are required for the routes.

"Some routes that disappeared in March 2009 aren't reappearing -- at least not yet," he said. That's because of low projected ridership.

Some express routes aren't operating as frequently as they were before the service reduction, Friem said.

Two former riders will be watching for restored express routes. Deb Garber used to ride an express bus from near her Chesterfield home to work at St. Mary's hospital. She'd rather ride the bus to help the environment, but her route was cut last year and is not being returned in the same way. Jane Suozzi of Ballwin joined a van pool when the express bus she took to work downtown was eliminated last year. Her vanpool recently disbanded, and she joined another because her express route wasn't coming back in the same way, either.


'Restoration' sounds easy


The game plan sounds simple. St. Louis County voters agreed in April to pay more sales tax to bail out Metro after the agency slashed service last year due to a budget shortfall. Metro did a partial restoration in June but now, with the tax receipts coming in, it's time to "restore" service.

But Metro has to contend with many changes.

First, riders have left the fold.

"When the service reduction happened, a lot of people got into vanpools," Friem said. "Some people bought cars because (for) five months service disappeared and people made choices; they had to make adjustments. Just because you put the bus back doesn't mean the people are going to come back. That's a process that's going to take time."

And then there's the wild card -- the impact of the foundering economy.

"Remember in two years employment centers have changed," Friem said. "Some businesses have gone dark, others have opened up, some have moved so you adjust the service accordingly. (Routes are) based on the best intelligence we have of what's going on in the region right now."

And predicting service needs is a tough call.

"I can look at what happened with Madison County service," Friem said. "They didn't have a service cut, but their ridership is down. And the Illinois part of our system -- their ridership has been basically flat even though they had a service increase. When I look at those two things, there's definitely an impact on transit ridership and this is nationwide, based on the economy.

"My objective is to put as much service on the street as I can. It's not possible to restore everything just the way it was, and quite frankly it's not smart to restore it to just the way it was. The economy has changed. There's less employment."

Some routes where 15-minute service was needed in the past might now only justify 30-minute service, he said. "I don't think anybody wants us to just put a bus out there for the sake of putting a bus out there. "

If Metro attracts more riders, it will adjust service accordingly. "I don't think anyone wants us to run a bus for the sake of running a bus," Friem said. "There's got to be a market for it."

Complicating the matter are the 50 buses Metro "lost" since March 2009. Some had to be retired, and the agency couldn't replace them because it had diverted capital funds into operations.

"For everybody on the street, the cuts began in 2009. But really the process began as early as 2005 when we were diverting capital money over to operating," Friem said. "That was money that would have replaced the bus fleet. In 2008 and 2009 we canceled almost 48 buses."

"But we are a resilient bunch," he said. While the industry average on a bus is under 40,000 miles a year, Metro's pushing that to 50,000 miles a year, he added.

To offset the losses and retire other buses, Metro plans to buy 80 to 90 buses in the next three years.

The service disruption last year knocked Metro off the track for what could have been its best year ever with 60 million boardings. "In the long run, in about two years, our ridership is going to come back if we do what we have done in the past," Friem said. "We will attract people because the service is good."

Metro looks to the future

Friem knows the ball is now in Metro's court.

"The onus is going to be on us to prove that it's going to work," he said.

"It's a significant change," Friem said. "We're going to watch it very carefully. All of our sensors are wide open. We're listening for feedback. We're taking every comment seriously."

Monday's restoration won't impact MetroLink. Its service was largely restored in June. Trains now have a 12-minute headway instead of 15 minutes after the reduction, Friem said. "It's not all the way back to the 10 (minutes) it was before the service cut." That's because of ridership levels.

"If the economy picks up, we may have to do something about it," he said although the Eads Bridge work slated to kick off later this year also requires the longer times.

And what about those bus rapid transit routes Metro talked enthusiastically about? They may be coming, but it will take a while to get the federal funds to implement them.

"Prop A (the initiative that raised sales tax) is a game changer," Friem said. "It puts us back in the game, but the game you have to play now is attracting federal transit money to St. Louis. Before, that was hopeless because there was never a chance to have matching money. The process of getting the region in position at the federal level has already begun. We're getting ready to compete. I think we'll be successful." 

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