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Dip in Metro ridership adds to agency worries

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 27, 2009 - Metro ridership fell 8.7 percent in January over the same period last year giving agency officials, already beleaguered by budget woes, more to worry about.

The question they're asking: Are the fare increases that went into effect Jan. 1 cutting into business?

MetroBus ridership dropped 9.7 percent while MetroLink ridership fell 6.6 percent compared to January 2008, said Raymond A. Friem, senior vice president of transit operations, at the monthly Metro Board of Commissioners meeting Friday. The meeting was conducted largely by phone - Richard LaBore was the only commissioner physically present at Metro headquarters for the meeting.

Metro saw 3.9 million passenger boardings in January 2009 against 4.3 million boardings in January 2008, Friem said.

While Metro ridership is up 6 percent year-to-date through Jan. 31, the January figures are worrisome, he said.

It's difficult to tell how much impact the 25-cent fare increase that went into effect Jan. 1 had on ridership, Friem said in an interview after the meeting.

"There were snow days, ice days (last month) - it was an extremely cold month," he said. "Last January weather conditions were a lot more favorable. There was little special event activity this January compared to last year. There's a number of factors, but we also had a fare increase. We're going to have to watch this."

The agency has said it suffers from a $50 million budget shortfall. After voters last fall defeated Proposition M, which would have added a half-cent sales tax to increase funding for Metro, officials announced the increase that's already gone into effect as well as another 25-cent fare to come July 1, 2010.

They've also announced they would shrink the system by 44 percent eliminating all service, including Call-A-Ride, west and south of Interstate 270. The cuts, slated to go into effect March 30, will also end express bus routes and reduce MetroLink service.

January's drop in ridership could portend a further decline in use in the future, Friem said.

"There's a good possibility people are taking all this service cut information to heart and they're finding other options now," he said. They may be saying "' I'm not going to wait until March 30 to find my option. I'm going to try some things now.' Whenever you're in a situation like we are, that's a real possibility."

Friem also worries about whether Metro could bring the riders it loses back if it find new operating funds in the future.

"A system like this has to have the confidence of its daily users," he said. "If you lose that confidence, people will leave. We worked very hard to build ridership. We've been very successful at building ridership. This whole thing is taking us back in a direction we hoped we'd never have to go again."

Hope for Help from Gateway

Meanwhile, Metro is hoping East-West Gateway Council of Governments can find Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds that it can use for operating expenses forestalling some of the cuts slated for next month.

Earlier this week Gateway said it is trying to "flex" or transfer $12 million in federal funds that were allocated for other projects to Metro. If successful, the funds cannot be used to restore existing routes, Friem said. To meet the requirement of mitigating congestion and improving air quality, they must be used to create new routes, he said.

But he warned that the transfer is still just a hope.

"There's nothing guaranteed yet," he said. "Even if the agency gets $10-12 million in CMAQ funds, we're still left with a $40 million service cut."

And even if the transfer is successful, the new routes won't happen until summer. "Right now, there's actually no hope of getting it for March 30," he said. "It may be July 1."

Still, Metro is searching hard for money that could be used to cover if - and until - the Gateway money comes through. "We're looking at that time frame in between. Is there anything we can finance or fund as a stopgap, as a bridge to the service made available with this money?" Friem said. "The primary worry in all of this is money and there's precious little of it to be had."

Does that mean there's no hope?

"If I didn't think there was any hope I wouldn't be working on it," he said.

Friem said. The CMAQ funds are "certainly not going to restore the service to what it was. It's certainly not going to bring every rider back.

"It'll all be limited. It will not be like anything we're running today but every little bit is going to help."

On another matter, the board approved restructuring and refunding the Series 2002A Cross County MetroLink construction bonds. The rate will be no more than 5.25 percent, John Noce, Metro's chief financial officer and senior vice president, said.

Student Passes

During the public comment portion of the meeting, St. Louis resident Lambert Jackson questioned why St. Louis Community College students are not offered the less expensive Metro passes that are available to students at Washington University. Friem said Metro offers a "Universal Pass" to all area colleges and universities but only Washington University and Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville have the program. Schools can purchase passes at a rate determined by the volume of passes they buy and the amount of Metro service available at the school's campus, he said. They can then to sell or give the passes to students, he said.

Another rider, Suzan Miller of St. Louis, complained that revised service schedules being distributed at Metro transfer stations are not accurate. The schedules show the Lindbergh bus coming every half hour when in reality it comes every hour, she said. Friem said he would look into the matter.

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer.