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Bus driver shortage drives Metro Transit to change 18 bus routes beginning March 21

An electric bus pulls into its charging station on Broadway Street and Taylor Avenue.
Kendall Crawford
St. Louis Public Radio
Metro Transit will change the service frequency of 12 MetroBus routes, and six routes will see schedule adjustments mid-March.

Metro Transit is cutting the service frequency of buses on 12 MetroBus routes and making changes to six other routes.

Bi-State Development, which operates the transit system, is struggling to operate its routes because it is having trouble attracting and retaining bus drivers during the coronavirus pandemic. The company has boosted pay to $18.53 an hour to recruit drivers.

“Unfortunately, this is just about what our labor availability is,” said Taulby Roach, Bi-State Development president and CEO. “It still means that we have to be sure that our level of service is balanced with our labor availability.”

The transit company needs to fill about 130 positions to keep services operating across the St. Louis region.

The changes to the 12 routes could include extending the arrival times for some routes by as long as 20 minutes.

Transit officials say bus stop changes or additional trips on the other six routes will help accommodate an increase in riders and ensure that they can more quickly transfer to other MetroBus routes and to MetroLink.

“The frequency change allows us to still have service,” Roach said. “Since we're down on ridership right now, there is room in the buses, so we feel that this adjustment is something that the public can still make and still get to their jobs, to the hospitals, to the grocery stores.”

During the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, MetroBus ridership dropped by as much as 50%. MetroBus ridership is down about 40%.

The changes are frustrating to some riders, who already have seen MetroBus changes to routes in recent weeks.

Karen Bencke, a church secretary from St. Louis, takes MetroBus Route 97 from her home in the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood to her downtown job. Before the pandemic, her morning and evening buses were rarely late. Now, her buses are about five minutes late nearly three times a week.

“Early pandemic it wasn't too bad, but in the past years, though, it's gotten progressively worse and worse and worse, with the bus being late or not showing up at all,” Bencke said. “It's gotten pretty annoying.”

In October, Metro Transit changed Bencke’s bus routes frequency from every 30 minutes to every 40 minutes. Also, her bus stop used to be in front of her job; now she has to walk about five minutes from work to catch her bus home. However, she is mostly upset about the frequency change.

“I'm leaving a few minutes early because the bus comes either one minute after I supposedly get off work or 40 minutes after that,” she said.

Bencke says Metro Transit should immediately make riders aware of late buses so they can make other plans.

“I understand the driver shortage. It's a problem, and there's not going to be an easy solution to that, but there needs to be better communication,” Bencke said. “If I know when my bus is running late or I know that the bus isn't going to come at all, I can make plans. … I could plan to ride the MetroLink or I could switch hours.”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.