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Economy & Business

Metro's restoration of service was mostly a smooth ride for passengers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2009 - Bus routes returned to the road Monday and riders and employees breathed a collective sigh of relief as Metro's partial-service restoration plan went into effect.

Metro spokeswoman Angela Fletcher-Mabry said the agency received mostly positive feedback on Monday about the restorations. "Overall things have gone really well and better than expected," Mabry said.

Some 253 Metro employees are returning to work, according to Mabry. Of those, 165 are bus operators.

Buses on Monday had more riders than Metro was expecting. As more people learn about the restoration plan, Mabry said, ridership could increase.

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The most common complaints Metro officials have heard concern new or restored routes that combine two pre-March 30 routes. Riders say those routes are less efficient and less direct because they're covering the ground of two routes but only hitting a few more stops, according to Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro's acting chief of planning and service development.

There were also riders who missed their buses because of confusion over what side of the street the buses were supposed to stop. Officials said they received, as they were expecting, some comments from riders who were still unfamiliar with route changes.

Still, Mabry said most people appeared to be up to speed.

Metro restored 55 percent of the bus service it had eliminated on March 30 because of a budget shortfall. The restored service includes seven new routes and changes and additions to several other routes. Call-a-Ride service was also restored around those bus routes. The money Metro received from state and federal governments will fund the restored service for about 10 months.

Five express bus routes were restored, and the new downtown circulator replaces many downtown bus routes Metro eliminated.

Tom Shrout, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, said he liked the idea of the circulator but wants to talk with businesses about promoting it.

"We haven't had a shuttle before, and it can be used for more than just getting over to 14th Street to catch another bus," Shrout said. "It could be used to access the hotels on Broadway or the entertainment areas on Washington Avenue, for instance."

GETTING THE WORD OUT

Due to the magnitude of the route changes, Mefford-Miller said it was "critically important" for Metro to educate riders face to face.

Metro last week set up information booths at almost a dozen places -- bus stops and MetroLink stations -- where employees handed out maps and timetables.

The agency then set up stations at three bus transfer stations and one bus bay area early Monday morning. Agency representatives greeted riders, answered questions, gave away Metro pens as tokens of appreciation and again handed out new route maps and timetables.

Jim Cali, director of internal audit for Metro, was one of the employees stationed at the Civic Center MetroBus Transfer Center. He said he spoke with around 350 customers. Baker estimated 700-750 people showed up between 4-8 a.m.

The information trailer at the Civic Center station, the busiest one, will remain for a "prolonged period of time," Cali said.

"We're not sure that everyone was up to speed on the adjustments and timings and so forth, so we're going to make the extra effort," Cali said.

The most common questions Linda Baker, Metro's senior planner, received concerned where buses were picking up passengers, what routes to take and where new routes go.

See the sidebar for information on where to get updated bus routes.

BUMPS IN THE ROAD

Metro employees and riders are expressing relief, but some didn't have the smoothest experience.

Cali used to ride the 58-X every day from Ballwin to Metro headquarters until the route was slashed. But Metro has restored it mostly unchanged, and he rode it Monday morning to staff the information booth.

After Metro cut the route, he drove to work. "There was no other way to get to town," Cali said.

The costs added up: $60 a week to park downtown, plus gasoline costs. Meanwhile, he said he pays $68 for a monthly bus pass.

"The bus gets me downtown in about an hour, versus having to drive 60 miles round-trip, so it's a big savings for me," Cali said.

Karen and Stacey Baker of Florissant said they rode the new 27-North County Shuttle on a brand-new bus on Monday. Karen Baker said the bus ran well, was on time and didn't have any mechanical problems.

But they said there were no schedules on their bus. Karen Baker also said Metro should have had representatives handing out schedules at more than four places Monday.

"What about the person that's disabled and can't get around?" Karen Baker said. "They (representatives) should be everywhere."

Stacey Baker also said he waited a long time because some routes "don't connect like they used to." Karen said the 27 bus route seems "unnecessary."

"It only goes to Flower Valley, but the 47 used to go all the way" to Clayton, she said. "So it drops you off and then you have to get on the 47, and that doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

BACK TO WORK

Workers have returned in phases since early July; the last group will return next week, Mabry said. Metro has required them to go through retraining, including physicals and drug tests and learning how to drive new routes.

George Richardson of O'Fallon, Mo., was among the employees Metro called back to work on July 6 after being laid off. He has served as a bus repairman at Metro's Brentwood garage.

After losing his job on March 30, Richardson and his family initially lived off unemployment insurance and savings. In early June, he found work as a roadside mechanic, but the income wasn't enough, and his family almost ran out of money.

In the third week of June, he got a call from Metro about returning to work. "And thank God that I did," Richardson said.

Now working again, he said he's saving up money, just in case another rainy day comes.

ANOTHER PROPOSITION M?

Shrout said today's restoration is good for the region but is only "patchwork," because it doesn't restore all of the service and doesn't set up the possibility of expanding the transit system.

Metro hasn't received or been approached about any additional funding lately, Mefford-Miller said.

Metro doesn't have a long-term funding source for the restored service. But the agency could get one if St. Louis County voters approve another Proposition M, possibly next April.

Shrout said he is in talks with people in the region about another campaign. An announcement could come in the fall. He expressed confidence another Proposition M could pass, after last fall's Proposition M failed by 3 percent.

"We wouldn't be doing it if we thought it was going to fail," Shrout said. "We were so close last time. I'm sure that we could win." 

Puneet Kollipara, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Washington University.

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