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Metro announces its plans for $12 million in state money

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 22, 2009 - MetroBus and Call-A-Ride users may get some relief from the deep cuts in service the agency made March 30. The Metro Board of Commissioners approved a plan today to allocate the $12 million in state funding approved by the Missouri Legislature -- but they shouldn't expect that relief soon.

Metro CEO and President Bob Baer cautioned it would take time to make the changes in the preliminary restoration plan. The changes won't go into effect until Aug. 3.

"There's a lot of preparation and scheduling when you bring back operators," said Baer. "You've got to do training and drug screening again because we can't put operators out there without doing their normal protocol. There are a lot of things that have to be done."

With this announcement, Baer said that "people are going to expect service the next day. It's not going to happen because all this preparatory work is absolutely essential."

The plan restores some, but not all of the cuts made in late March when the agency eliminated 24 bus routes and reduced service on those that remained, Ray Friem, Metro operations director, said. It does not restore any MetroLink service.

Metro officials broke down the $12 million in spending:

  •  slightly more than $6 million for restoring routes
  •  $1.5 million for Call-A-Ride service
  •  $2 million for more frequent stops on busy routes
  •  $2 million for express service
  •  $124,744 for start-up costs and money put in reserve

Baer called the $12 million package from the state "unprecedented."
"We think that in and of itself is a major accomplishment but what's important is that allows us to bring back service," he said.

An earlier, unsuccessful bill called for $35 million for Metro. "You can't solve a $35-million problem with $12 million, but we'll try to do the best we can with what we've got," Baer said.

The plan calls for enhancements -- meaning more trips, greater frequency or routing changes -- to the 11 Chippewa, 13 Union, 16 City Limits, 40 Broadway, 49 Lindbergh, 57 Manchester, 59 Shaw, 61 Chambers Road, 70 Grand, 74 Florissant, 90 Hampton, 91 Olive, 94 Page, 97 Delmar, 98 Clayton-Chesterfield and 198 Ballas Outer 40.

Certain express routes will be restored but without the same routing and scheduling as before. They include: the 66 Clayton-Airport, 40X I-55 Mehlville Express, the 58X Twin Oaks Express, the 174X New Halls Ferry Express, the 194 Page Limited and the 410X Eureka Express.

New routes include a 6 Fenton Gravois Bluffs, a 158 Hanley Chesterfield, and a 99 Downtown Circulator. Bus riders had complained of the lack of bus service beyond 14th Street in downtown. Right now, riders who take a bus downtown must transfer to MetroLink if they need to go farther east than 14th Street.

The Circulator would serve downtown from the Civic Center MetroBus Center, Washington Avenue to the Convention Center MetroLink Station to Broadway, Spruce, Fourth Street, west on Washington Avenue, south to 14th Street and back to the Civic Center MetroBus Center. It would run every 10 minutes during the day and 20 minutes in the evening and operate from 5:05 a.m. to 12:16 a.m. On Saturday, the bus would operate from 5:10 a.m. to 11:58 p.m. There would be no service on Sunday.

Under the plan, Call-A-Ride service will be restored at ADA-rates to trips within three-quarters of a mile of the extended MetroBus routes.

In deciding which routes to restore or add, Jessica Mefford-Miller, acting chief of planning and system development, said the staff paid particular attention to routes that service major employment centers; overcrowded bus routes; routes with limited connectivity to other routes; and areas without much Call-A-Ride.

Friem said it was too early to say how many drivers would be called back.

The restoration plan would be effective until the end of Metro's fiscal year on June 30, 2010. Baer cautioned that it is a stopgap measure and a stable, permanent source of funding still must be found for the service to continue and expand.

Metro raised fares late last year and severely cut service this spring because of a $70 million budget shortfall following the failure of a transportation sales tax increase last fall.

Early in Friday's meeting it appeared that the board would not be able to act on the plan because it lacked a quorum. Most of the board's five Missouri members were absent. At 9:20 a.m. Commissioner Vincent Schoemel joined the meeting by telephone giving the board a quorum so it could vote on the plan.

Metro may get federal help

Metro, the region's financially troubled transit agency, may be about to receive a federal boost.

The U.S. Senate acted late Thursday to approve a bill that contains language that, according to the staff for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., "will allow transit agencies in large cities to use some of their stimulus funding in a way that will help them to preserve services and avoid layoffs."

The provision would allow transit agencies "to use up to 10 percent of their stimulus funding for operation costs," McCaskill's staff said. The senator had sought the language, at the behest of Metro and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

The legislation still has a ways to go. It now goes to a House-Senate conference panel. If it is approved by the U.S. House, it still will need the signature of President Barack Obama.

Metro also is awaiting approval from Gov. Jay Nixon, who has yet to weigh in on the final version of a state package of federal stimulus spending -- approved by the Legislature -- that calls for $12 million in one-time help for the transit agency. Nixon has said he supports Metro, but he has raised concerns about the overall spending in the bill.

Metro earlier had unsuccessfully sought federal approval to allow it to use its own direct share of stimulus money for current operations. Metro officials have said that could help the agency restore some routes and staff. Metro cut 500 jobs, and several dozen routes in late March, after St. Louis County voters rejected in November a proposed increase in the sales tax earmarked for transit.

Regular bus service has been dropped west and south of Interstate 270, which has made it difficult for people in the city of St. Louis and closer-in suburbs who rely on public transit to get to jobs further out in the county.

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer who cover transportation. 

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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