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Bus drivers and riders alike are frustrated amid Metro Transit worker shortage

St. Louisans ride a packed MetroBus on Nov. 3, 2021.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louisans ride a packed MetroBus last week.

Metro Transit plans to suspend six MetroBus routes and reduce the frequency of service along 31 others later this month in response to an ongoing operator shortage. Without enough bus drivers to staff the public transportation agency’s current service level, many riders have been left waiting at stops for planned buses that never come.

Along a high-frequency route like the #70 Grand, a typical 15-minute wait is frequently turning into 30 or 40 minutes. And a canceled trip can mean waiting far longer along routes where a bus is scheduled to pass by only every half-hour or so. As temperatures in the St. Louis region drop toward winter, that has St. Louis resident Latoya Smith particularly worried.

The longtime bus rider told St. Louis on the Air that as someone who needs to be on site at her workplace from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, her days already have been made more difficult and her schedule uncertain by the transit worker shortage.

“I’m dependent on the bus to make a connection. … It makes it very difficult for me to get to my job, and then I’m having to always re-explain to my boss. … You don’t know how long you’re going to be standing outside,” Smith said.

Metro recently posted tips for how to tell if a trip has been canceled by using the Transit app. “Our team works hard to update Transit app as quickly as possible, but it is not always possible to have a trip crossed off in time,” an Oct. 19 Metro blog post reads, with screenshots of an example trip included to help app-checking riders tell if the app is actually accurate.

Metro also suggests calling its Transit Information team at 314-231-2345 if riders encounter a wait of 30 minutes or more due to a bus not showing up for a scheduled trip, saying “we can help set up a ride on Lyft for you.”

Dutchtown-based bus rider Gina Becnel took advantage of the Lyft backup option recently, calling Metro after waiting in the cold and noticing the Transit app wasn’t live-updating. She said she was grateful for the lift but sees it as a less-than-ideal solution.

Catina Wilson, left, and Mitch Eagles joined Tuesday's talk show.
Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Catina Wilson, left, and Mitch Eagles joined Tuesday's talk show.

“If every rider who missed their bus was taking a Lyft, it would just be more affordable for Metro to raise the wage of their drivers,” Becnel said. “And I’m sure that would attract more drivers to fill this gap.”

Local transit enthusiast Mitch Eagles notes that not all bus riders have access to smartphone apps — and may not be aware that Metro has turned to Lyft services to fill in transit gaps. And he and Catina Wilson, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788, are both sad to see public transit dollars going instead to individualized ridesharing.

“It’s not the Metro of 20 years ago,” Wilson lamented. She’s been sorry to see commuter lines cut and service reduced along some of the region’s highest-capacity bus lines.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, she told host Sarah Fenske about what she’s heard from union members about why some bus drivers are growing frustrated or even leaving the job.

“It’s really the lack of support from the management,” Wilson said. “And this is not an easy job to do.”

The union rep pointed to COVID-19-related stressors as pivotal and what she described as a lack of empathy from management along with “unrealistic expectations” in the pandemic era.

“The stress of the job and the danger that comes with the job, a number of them are calling it quits,” Wilson explained. “And you can’t recruit enough people yet. The management team, I don’t believe, is putting in the work it takes to retain the employees who have maintained the system.”

Meanwhile, several local bus riders including Eagles are working to launch a union for transit riders, called Bus Riders United STL. All volunteers at this point, members of the group plan to start making their presence known across the transit system this week.

“We’re going to be out at transit centers and bus stops, as much as we can. ... We’ll be sharing information about the organization and our goals,” Eagles said.

Those goals include giving bus riders a stronger voice at the decision-making table.

“These problems have been going on for a long time … and nothing has been done. We hear a lot about turnstiles and security safety, but safety only goes that far,” Eagles said. “It doesn’t count for the single mother who’s waiting to get home from her job in the dark and her bus shelter is broken, and the bus has been cut back. And now she has to wait an extra half-hour. She might have to transfer. Why doesn't that count as safety for Metro and Bi-State [Development]?”

With riders left out in cold, St. Louis needs bus drivers
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with bus rider Mitch Eagles and operator union rep Catina Wilson — and also hears from other riders and Bi-State Development's Taulby Roach.

Wilson added that she thinks “the system needs to really look at kind of doing an overhaul and putting the operators and people in labor in a different place where they feel appreciated.”

“We have people [making] under $20 an hour,” she said. “You can’t live today on these kind of wages. And they don’t get the treatment that they deserve when they’re making this system work.”

The discussion also included comments from Bi-State Development President and CEO Taulby Roach. He said in a statement provided to St. Louis on the Air on Tuesday morning that Bi-State’s focus “is to support our operators and deliver a better transit experience for our riders.”

“We didn’t shut down when the global pandemic reached our region so our operators have been out there on the front line every single day delivering service for essential workers,” Roach wrote in part. “Their commitment to provide transit services during one of the most challenging periods in history has been nothing short of heroic. We need to get our operators more help because we are impacted like many other transit agencies and businesses by the nationwide labor shortage.”

The transit CEO went on to say that new operators are being hired “to sustain our current team members. We’ve increased our recruitment efforts significantly, and we’re slowly beginning to see some success with new operator training classes progressing for MetroBus and Metro Call-A-Ride. However, it is going to take time to restore our workforce level to where it needs to be.”

Roach emphasized his appreciation for the agency’s workers and riders, and said the Nov. 29 service changes are being implemented “to improve service reliability and minimize or eliminate canceled bus trips.”

“We will be able to better match our service levels with our staffing resources so that our riders can rely on Metro and know that their bus will arrive when it is scheduled to,” he wrote. “This reduction in service and service frequency is temporary. It is intended to stabilize our service, improve our reliability, and improve service for riders. And as we grow our workforce in the months ahead, we look forward to restoring transit service in spring and summer of next year.”

Metro Transit is putting on a hiring event from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. this Saturday at its Central Facility, 3300 Spruce St.

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 and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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