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'This Is A Daunting Adversary': Bi-State CEO Offers Update On Regional Transit Challenges

A MetroBus operator gives a thumbs up while on the job wearing a mask.
Metro Transit
A MetroBus operator gives a thumbs up while on the job wearing a mask.

Early last month, many St. Louis leaders were celebrating what appeared to be a new level of regional collaboration around public transportation. Bi-State Development President and CEO Taulby Roach joined St. Louis on the Air to talk about new security strategies aimed at boosting Metro Transit ridership and overall safety and comfort.

But within a week or so of that appearance, the coronavirus pandemic had changed the transit agency’s focus in a big way. Instead of tweets encouraging commuters to choose public transit and regular “Passenger Profiles” sharing stories of folks doing just that, Metro’s communications began mirroring the urgent pleas of so many other entities in the region: Stay home — and off transit — if at all possible.

“Thank you to our operators, mechanics, maintenance and customer service teams for being on the front lines to get our health care workers, grocery store employees and others where they need to go,” one recent Metro tweet reads. “Remember: Only use Metro Transit for essential trips.”

Many regular riders have taken that to heart, and, as is the case among other rail and bus systems across the country, Metro ridership and service frequency have both decreased significantly.

Meanwhile, the transit agency has taken steps to try to protect its workforce, but some bus drivers and other workers would like to see more action.

Taulby Roach joined Thursday's program.
Credit File photo | Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Taulby Roach joined Thursday's program.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Roach joined host Sarah Fenske to provide the latest updates on the current challenges facing transit workers, riders and leaders.

“This is a daunting adversary, and we’re doing our best to fight it. … What we need to do is, we need to pick ourselves up and do the best we can,” Roach said, “and we’re going to take every measure we can to try to assure health and still move folks around the city.”

He noted that Metro Transit is implementing some additional service changes April 20 to respond to current ridership trends.

“Some of the larger crosstown routes, like a Grand or a Kingshighway, or even the Hazelwood #100 — those are [serving] the essential workers who are going to, for instance, food distribution centers and to grocery stores and to the large health centers, and they still need to get there,” Roach said. “They are the essential people, and we still need to provide that service. So we are shifting our service so that we can add buses, actually, to those routes, so that folks have more space between them.”

Roach called Metro’s operators “the real heroes here.” He said his obligation is to provide as many tools to them as possible right now.

“Since March the 23rd, we have been testing 100% of our employees before they actually even get into the facilities,” he said. “So out in the parking lots, we’re doing temperature screenings and other health checks just as a measure. We’re providing PPE — so, masks and gloves — for our drivers. We’re fighting across the country to try to get those supplies in place so that we give the drivers the things they need to do their job.”

The conversation touched on the recent news that a MetroBus driver, Dennis Wallace, passed away after contracting COVID-19.

“If there are any ideas that will come from both my riders and from my operators, we’re doing anything innovative that we can to try to do better,” Roach said. “And you know, really kind of honor the legacy of an operator like Dennis Wallace who worked for us for 10 years, a dedicated employee, who provided service to the community.”

Mia King, a union representative with SEIU 1 whose members include bus drivers with the separate Madison County Transit, also shared comments about what she’s hearing from transit workers.

“It’s just a constant wave of anxiety that they’re feeling right now, you know,” King said. “Every single day they’re going, driving these buses … they’re overcrowded, passengers don’t have masks, gloves on. So it’s just an automatic sense of anxiety for them with every passenger that comes on the bus.”

Roach responded that he understands the anxiety, which he’s also seen among Metro Transit’s workforce.

“It’s reasonable that[Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788] President Reggie Howard has of course pushed me to try to come up with solutions. We’ve found the ATU to be a good a partner; they’re representing their folks — and I need to be responsive and do everything that we can within reason. But of course all of us are scrambling in a very tough situation.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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