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West County talks to Metro about contracting for bus service

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2009 - With just six weeks until Metro makes the largest service cuts in the agency's history, riders and employers are scrambling to find transportation alternatives to get people who depend on Metro to their jobs.

Now even some municipalities are getting involved in the scramble.

Chesterfield officials asked Metro last week what it would cost for the agency to provide bus service to the West County city from the westernmost points that will still have service after the cuts go into effect March 30.

Late last year Metro announced drastic reductions in service in response to a $50 million shortfall in operating funds following the defeat of Prop M in November. Now, it appears that Metro is not getting any stimulus money to operate the system.

Libbey Malberg, assistant city administrator for community service and economic development, said Mayor John Nations, Creve Coeur Mayor Harold Dielmann and representatives of a dozen businesses met last week with Metro officials. The mayors of Town and Country, Creve Coeur and Chesterfield are also looking at what it would cost if several communities -- and businesses -- got together to bring the service here.

They also met with Maria Miller of Midwest Connections Transportation, a new van service hoping to offer additional service to Chesterfield. Miller said she is developing price quotes for transporting employees to their jobs in Chesterfield.

Many employees of retail businesses and nursing homes in Chesterfield live east of Interstate 270 and depend on Metro to get to work. The businesses and nursing homes have expressed concern over how their workers will get to their jobs -- and how the businesses would replace them if they can't get to work.

Dielmann said that Creve Coeur is also concerned that the cuts will affect businesses in his city, including Barnes Jewish West County Hospital and several retirement communities. He estimated "at least 400 to 500" workers depend upon Metro to get to their jobs in Creve Coeur.

"Metro is giving us a quote on what it would cost to serve Chesterfield from a couple of the train (MetroLink) stations that they feel funnel the most people," Malberg said. The quote will be for Metro to get passengers from the "farthest west stations" onto buses and transport them to Chesterfield, she said.

Specifically, they're looking at buses from the MetroLink stations at Hanley and the Galleria out to Chesterfield, Malberg said. Because nursing home and retail establishments have shifts that begin and end at various times of the day and night, scheduling is "certainly an issue," she said.

Metro officials apparently can't run service to Chesterfield from the bus transfer station at Ballas Road and Interstate 64/Highway 40 because many routes going there will be eliminated.

Glenn Koenen, vice president for government affairs and president-elect of the West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce, said he, Chesterfield business representatives and others hope to discuss Metro's cuts with Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls.

Last month Koenen wrote a letter to Metro board of commissioners chairman Jeff Watson complaining that the cuts were unfair to St. Louis County, especially since Metro receives tax revenue from the county. Koenen suggested that Metro "recraft" its plan to reduce service so that "the cuts equally impact the entire service area west of the Mississippi." He suggested that if it doesn't, the group could "lobby the Missouri Legislature this session to remove St. Louis County from Metro."

Metro spokesperson Dianne Williams confirmed that Metro is in the process of determining what it would have to charge to provide bus service from the western MetroLink stations to Chesterfield. Such independent contracts would be possible "if somebody would be willing to pay for that," she said.

"Let's say a community says, 'We want transit in our community and we're willing to pay,' it would follow the same example as St. Clair County, Illinois saying, 'I want the MetroLink line to run to Fairview Heights all day long, here's $1.9 million to pay for it,'" she said.

When Metro announced in December it would reduce the Shrewsbury line to a "shuttle" operation with trains terminating at the Forest Park station where riders would have to transfer to another train to reach points east, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern told the Metro board St. Clair County Transit District would advance Metro $1.9 million a year for 18 months ($2.7 million) to continue to operate the Shrewsbury MetroLink line to Fairview Heights. Under the plan the Transit District would receive credits in the future on payments it makes to Metro for service in St. Clair County.

Williams declined to say if other communities have approached Metro with similar requests. She added: "None that are talking about it yet."

Malberg says Chesterfield is looking at other options because it is unlikely Metro will reverse its decision to cut service.

"It just doesn't sound positive at all that there's going to be an reprieve (from the cuts) or that suddenly (Metro is) are going to say, 'Oh, no, we were just kidding,'" she said. "While they've asked for stimulus money and they're hoping to get grant money, we're not counting on that. And even if they were (to get the money), there would be this service gap between when the cuts are made on the 30th and when they could implement anything."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, often writes about transportation. .

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