Metro rolls out plan for service restoration, first phase starts June 28
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2010 - St. Louis' disabled community could get expanded Call-A-Ride service under an option Metro is considering for its plan to restore service cut last year.
Currently federal law requires that Metro provide van service to the disabled within 3/4 of a mile of an existing bus or train route. The agency is considering creating a second boundary 1.5 miles from the routes with service offered at a higher rate than the current $4 ADA fare. However, Metro is also considering applying a portion of funds raised by the increased sales tax to reduce fares for all trips beyond the -mile boundary.
After the service cuts last year, Call-A-Ride ridership dropped by 23.4 percent.
Ray Friem, Metro's senior vice president of transit operations, said Metro officials looked at what transit agencies in other cities are doing to help disabled members of the community. "Quite frankly, the answer is really nothing much," he said.
But St. Louis, like other Midwestern cities, has "some additional barriers" compared to East and West Coast cities rebuilt to ADA standards. Coupled with a lack of accessible taxicabs, the disabled face a "disproportionate burden" here, he said.
Call-A-Ride service is the most expensive transit service, which is why many transit systems don't offer service beyond that required by law, he said. But the "uniqueness of the St. Louis market" indicates more should be done, he added.
"The region continues to be inaccessible for many disabled individual because of a lack of sidewalks and safe crossings," Friem said. While Metro is trying to make bus stops more accessible, most of them are not, he said.
Metro Commissioner Richard LaBore noted that the area has some 8,000 bus stops. Metro works with local governments to improve those properties, he said. Still, about 1,000 properties with bus stops won't be able to comply with ADA regulations for various reasons, he added.
Friem said he will present a more specific plan on expanded Call-A-Ride service at the board's May meeting.
On another issue, Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro's chief of planning and system development, said Metro is working hard to win back the 17 percent of its ridership it lost last year. "We aim to bring those customers back," she said. Beyond that, Metro is poised "to meet the increasing demands for transit service across the St. Louis region," she said.
That's a major reason the agency is soliciting public comments on its plan, she said. Metro wants to cultivate the good will created during the recent Proposition A campaign.
"All of the contact we've had with the public over the last two years really has educated us about some better ways of doing some things," Friem said. "What we want to emphasize is we're not done making that contact with the public."
Still, the goal will be to tweak routes to what appears to be optimal and then watch it for a while, he said. "One of the criticisms we've heard very clearly in our travels around the region is, 'You guys change too much.'"
Riders want consistent times for their rides, Friem said. "The goal is going to be to drive down the confusion of the riding public because we're adjusting schedules probably way too much," he added.
Commissioner James T. Rosborg asked why none of the current round of public engagements meetings will be held in Illinois. Although the vote was in Missouri, Illinois was very active in the Prop A campaign, he said.
"We have already basically planned that," Friem said adding that Metro officials will hold meetings in Illinois at least twice a year.
Read the Beacon's earlier story below about Metro's plan to restore services.
Fri., 04.16.10 - Metro riders will have to wait until the end of June to see the first of the service restorations Metro promised if Proposition A passed.
That's how long it will take for more buses to begin rolling and MetroLink service to ramp up.
And riders will also have to wait to learn if the tax increase will save them from a 25-cent fare increase slated for July 1. The increase would match a 25-cent hike Metro imposed with its March 2009 service cuts because of a budget shortfall. Metro officials say they have not yet determined if they will institute the July fare increase.
What you need to know
What will be different in Metro service come June 28? Here are highlights:
* A new bus route -- the Six River City -- will run from the Shrewsbury MetroLink station to the River City casino providing service to the casino and replacing some service cut in south city and county last year.
* More frequent buses on Chippewa, Grand, Hampton and Kingshighway. "Those routes are just very, very busy," Ray Friem, Metro's senior vice president of transit operations, said. "They need (more frequency). That'll take some pressure off."
* More MetroLink trains -- five an hour instead of four.
* Two buses on Lindbergh. The Lindbergh bus route will be split into the 49 North Lindbergh and the 48 South Lindbergh. "That's a very long route and we see different ridership patterns; so by splitting them, we actually think we can improve service," Friem said.
That allows Metro to run more often on the "more productive part of Lindbergh in the north," Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro's chief of planning and system development, said.
Other routes will see changes in late August or early September.
Also under consideration:
* Another new route, the Forest Park-Central West End Circulator, would be similar to the old Forest Park shuttle that ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day. "We're looking at the utility of doing that again," Friem said. One route would be from the Forest Park MetroLink station through Forest Park to Oakland Avenue and to the Missouri Botanical Garden, he said. Friem is not sure if he can muster the manpower and rolling stock by June. "Quite frankly, in September it doesn't make sense to do it; it's seasonal," he said.
* Splitting the Earth City route into two. "Earth City is a very, very powerful route," Friem said. "It's grown every year since its inception about six or seven years ago." The route now winds from Hanley to Harrah's Casino and ultimately to the St. Louis Mills mall in Hazelwood. "If you're riding it to Mills, you've taken a small tour," he said.
Friem wants to hear from riders about the Downtown Circulator, which he called "the biggest disappointment of my personal career." The route hasn't been used as he expected. "I want to hear what needs to happen to that bus route to attract people," he said.
And other changes may becoming. Friem says he's working with community groups in the south Central West End neighborhood.
The first phase of service restoration will kick in with route modifications and extensions on June 28 with additional changes in August or September. If necessary, a final round of changes in November should totally restore service to pre-March 2009 levels, said Ray Friem, Metro's senior vice president of transit operations.
"The goal at the end of the first year is to reinstate (service to) 98 percent of the jobs within walking distance of 95 percent of the population," Friem said. "That's kind of where we were before March 30. Transit is a lot of things, but giving people opportunities to get to work has got to be Job One."
At Friday's board meeting, Metro announced that it may expand its Call-A-Ride service for the disabled and elderly. Right now, federal law requires that Metro provide van service to the disabled within 3/4 of a mile of an existing bus or train stop. Metro is considering increasing that distance to 1.5 miles, thus increasing the number of potential riders. After the service cuts last year, Call-A-Ride ridership dropped by 23.4 percent. Metro hopes that ridership would increase with this change although the $4 Call-A-Ride fare would increase as well.
One of the first things riders may notice is more MetroLink trains during rush hour -- five an hour instead of four. Before the cuts, trains came every 10 minutes but were reduced to every 15 minutes, said Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro's chief of planning and system development.
"Now it will be 12 minutes," she said. "We can't take it all the way back down to 10 minutes because later this year with the Eads Bridge reconstruction, we'll have to single track across the Eads Bridge and we'll only be able to run trains across the bridge every six minutes."
Once again, Metro asks for public comment
Metro is asking for public comment on the changes in a series of public meetings beginning April 27. (See schedule of meetings at end of story.) Comments can be made by email, regular mail and phone through May 10.
The information will be used to craft a final restoration plan to be presented at Metro's May board meeting, Mefford-Miller said.
Deciding which routes to eliminate, alter, expand or add takes some time, she said. "It's really a rebuild of the transit system," she said.
Even before the April 6 vote, Metro was working on two plans -- a restoration plan and a service-reduction plan, which "fortunately we do not have to implement now," she said.
Earlier this month St. Louis County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase that, when combined with the quarter-cent tax it triggers in St. Louis, will put an estimated $83 million more in Metro's coffers. Part of the increase will go toward possible construction of a new MetroLink route in years to come.
Metro cut service by about 30 percent last year after voters rejected the tax increase in November 2008. With a one-time financial infusion from the Missouri legislature and some federal funding, Metro restored a portion of the service last August but that restoration was termed "skeletal" by some Metro officials.
Now they are now focusing their attention on full restoration of service -- with improvements. That includes "the most glaring frequency issues" causing overcrowding on some buses, Mefford-Miller said.
"We're focusing on some of the things that are most broken now," Friem said.
Buses can't turn on a dime and neither, it turns out, can a transit system.
If 11 weeks to see benefits from the sales tax increase seems like a long time to riders eager for their routes to return, they don't understand what it takes to rev up the system, Mefford-Miller said. "April 6 to June 28 is lightning fast" by transit standards, she said.
Two things -- other than the plan itself -- are needed for the restoration: drivers and buses.
Metro already recalled all of the available operators and mechanics laid off last year, Mefford-Miller said. Some found other jobs or were brought back to replace drivers who left after the August restoration, she said. That means Metro is looking for 120 new drivers to fill all the positions it had before the cuts. It will also hire an as yet undetermined number of mechanics and supervisors, she said.
The hiring and training process for drivers is lengthy.
"To identify and screen candidates, do background checks, give them time to get DOT physicals and commercial drivers licenses and go through a 12-week training class, completely redesign the system, create schedule information, hire mechanics and get the agency's 50-bus contingency fleet ready for service in that amount of time is very fast," she said.
Metro had already begun recruiting operators and mechanics and had a list of candidates, Mefford-Miller said. "Wednesday we began the process of letting people know they have jobs," she added. The first class of 40 will begin 12 weeks of training later this month, she said.
Buses are another issue. Before the cutbacks, Metro was running 400 buses. Now, "it's a little more than 300," Dianne Williams, Metro spokeswoman said.
Every year the agency replaces 7 percent of its fleet, but with the budget shortfall last year, it canceled its bus orders. The agency also had to sack its entire compressed natural gas fleet because recertifying the tanks as required by law would cost more than the buses were worth, Friem said. Another 14 buses went to St. Clair County Transit District because the district, operated by Metro, expanded service in 2009. "Normally we would have just replaced them, but we weren't in a position to do that," Mefford-Miller said.
That leaves Metro short about 70 buses, Friem said. Even pulling 50 buses from its contingency fleet leaves the agency 20 to 28 buses short, he said.
Metro has already placed an order for new buses but it usually takes about 18 months for delivery. Friem is hoping Metro's good rapport with the supplier will help. "We're pretty sure we can get them in 12," he said.
Additional restoration changes will come in late August or early September. If all of the changes cannot be accomplished by then, there will be another round in November, Friem said.
Bob Baer, Metro's director, said the agency is working to "do the restoration as soon as possible." Many of the temporary signs put up when service was cut have already come down. "We are moving aggressively, and if we can accelerate any part of the schedule along the way, you can be sure we will do that," Baer said. "Our objective is to get all of the service back on the street as soon as possible."
Further down the line
With the buses Metro still needs, it could take until June 2011 to complete all of the restoration, Friem said. "And then, of course, after that, the focus shifts from restoration toward long-range plan activities."
Riders hoping to hop onboard bus rapid transit (BRT), the ballyhooed new system Metro touted at its public meetings last year, will have to keep waiting. They probably won't hit the streets until 2015, Mefford-Miller said.
"It's a good three-to-five years before we're able to begin the implementation process and closer to five years before you're actually open," she said.
But BRT -- and a possible new MetroLink line -- will have to wait.
"This week we're very focused with restoration," she said.
Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently about transportation.