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Economy & Business

Riders react to Metro's restorations of service

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 21, 2010 - Nearly a month into the restoration of Metro service, some Metro riders have jumped back aboard while others are still waiting for their bus.

The June 28 restoration, which Metro called a "soft launch," mainly increased frequency on MetroLink and the most crowded bus routes, said Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro's chief of planning and system development.

Most of the restoration -- two-thirds of it -- will come next month with a "major redesign of the system," she said. The changes come thanks to a half-cent increase in the sales tax St. Louis County voters approved last November.

"The big changes are going to come on Aug. 30 or Sept. 7," Mefford-Miller said. Metro plans to announce the new routes later this month, she said.

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Getting back on track

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Rick Rosen, who lives in downtown St. Loui and takes MetroLink to work, to run errands and to do "cultural things," says the increased frequency has made travel more convenient.

"I definitely noticed that because I ride light rail all the time," Rosen, a former urban planner who describes himself as an "activist in urban development issues," said. "With more frequent service, the individual trains are just a little less crowded at rush hour."

For Alex Ihnen who lives in St. Louis, the restoration means he'll use MetroLink more often again to get to and from Washington University's west campus in Clayton and to meetings on the main campus.

With the cuts, he used MetroLink less often because the reduced frequency meant waiting longer if he missed the train. "The more frequent the better for me," he said.

"It got to 20 minutes between trains," he said. "That's just too much to really make it useful." So Ihnen found himself riding less. "There were just too many times where I'd look up at the clock and realize I couldn't walk to the stop in time to get the train so I would drive to work instead of waiting."

Ihnen, who takes about 20 out-of-town business trips a year, says even with the cutbacks he found MetroLink "definitely more convenient" to get to the airport.

"The train takes you straight to the terminal," he said. And MetroLink is "more reliable" than driving on Interstate 170 where accidents can tie up traffic, he said.

"The great thing about trains is they're always on time -- within one minute or two minutes," he said.

Perez Eric Maxwell, who lives near Martin Luther King Drive and Goodfellow Boulevard, can take any of four major bus routes to his job at the Old Post Office downtown. If the frequency has changed, he hasn't noticed.  "The bus I take to work still comes at the same time in the morning and I still get to work about the same time," he said.

But when Metro did a partial restoration last year, his trip from downtown to his doctor's office at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield via MetroLink and two buses shortened from almost two hours to an hour and 15 minutes.

The drawback was the three-hour break in the service about noon. "If you had a 10 a.m. doctors appointment and you had lab work, you had to be done by noon because that's when the last bus left for Clayton until about 3 in the afternoon," he said. "No one wants to be sitting around the hospital for a couple of hours waiting for a bus."

When Maxwell went to his doctor's office last week, he was happy to find the 98 Chesterfield bus running every hour starting at 1:40 p.m. "In short, the commute has greatly improved," he said.

The biggest change riders saw June 28 was a 25 percent increase in rush hour MetroLink frequency, Mefford-Miller said. "That consumed a lot of the staff resources we had available," she added.

There's a reason the June restoration has focused on frequency improvements, she said. "That was really a big part of the cut because we did a lot of geographic restoration with the temporary money" -- the $12 million one-time infusion from the Missouri legislature last August. "But the frequency was so low on most of our routes we added frequency to a lot of busy routes."

Bus routes seeing increased frequency include the Chippewa, Grand, Hampton and Kingshighway routes, she said.

Metro also added a new bus route -- the Six River City -- from the Shrewsbury MetroLink Station to the River City Casino. It also split the Lindbergh route into two: the 49 North Lindbergh and the 48 South Lindbergh.

To implement the changes and replace drivers lost by attrition, Metro put 34 new drivers on the road last month, Mefford-Miller said.

Waiting at the bus stop

But the June restoration hasn't helped all riders.

St. Louis resident Ava Yelvington says she hasn't see any improvements. When Metro reduced its service last year, she couldn't get to her job at a downtown hotel until 5:30 a.m., a half hour after her starting time.

"They have added more buses to a lot of the lines, which does make getting from point A to B quicker," she said. "They have not changed the time of the first run. I still get to work 30 minutes late."

Jeff Jackson who lives in Calverton Park and works in Earth City was surprised to find the June restoration lengthened his commute to an hour and 15 minutes. He can bike the 11 miles from his home in an hour, the limit he sets for a bus commute. "Any time past that, and I think it is a waste," he said.

But he's hopeful things will improve.

"There are further changes in the works in August," he said. "Metro is splitting the Earth City and Ferguson bus lines so it is hard to say if my current plan will get better or worse. I am hoping for the better since the routes will be split which means less distance and possibly better frequency. If not, I will just keep using transit for the morning bus routes if needed. My wife will be happy to pick me up for the most part."

"From our perspective there hasn't been any significant change," St. Louis resident Janet Bowen said.

"The coverage still doesn't allow us to reach all the places we need to without spending lengthy bus trips, costly cabs, or driving ourselves," she said.

"We live in the Shaw's Garden area. My husband works in Chesterfield, which is where most of our travel is. My son is dependent on me or public transit to get anywhere he wants to go in the city because of his disability."

A recent bus trip to reduce a 10-block walk to less than a block took an hour, she said.

Kathleen Petersen of Richmond Heights also says her family has given up on the bus system.

Petersen, a psychologist who works at St. John's Mercy Rehab Hospital at Timberlake and Interstate 64, would like to take Metro to work but ruled that out when she found the trip would take an hour and a half. "There still is no viable system between Richmond Heights and Highway 40 at Timberlake."

When Metro cut service last year, Petersen bought another car so her daughters could get to their minimum wage summer jobs at the Mid-County Y.

"The girls struggle but share the car," she said. One daughter plans to use MetroLink this fall to take a class at UMSL.

Tina Hutchinson who lives in north St. Louis said the changes have left her scrambling to make a connection at 14th and Spruce when she needs to get to Oakland Avenue. "They connect too close together," she said. "If my bus gets downtown at 9 o'clock, my other bus leaves at 9 o'clock. See what I'm saying?"

"Sometimes when I get down there, it's either getting ready to pull off or if I miss it, I have to get on the MetroLink and go to the Central West End station to get the bus I missed," she said.

Anita Joggerst of Kirkwood found the partial restoration last year really helped her after the March 30 cutback left her traveling on a bus from Kirkwood to the Shrewsbury MetroLink station where she caught a train to the Forest Park station. There she got a train to the Rock Road Station where she got a bus to take her to her job at Westport.

"It took forever," she said.

Joggerst won't be watching the restoration coming up in August very closely. She got a new job in March -- in O'Fallon.

"It's a different story out there," she said. O'Fallon is in St. Charles County, which does not have Metro service.

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She wants a ticket to ride

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For two years Deb Garbo of Chesterfield took the 258 express bus from near where she lives in Chesterfield to St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond Heights where she works as a nurse practitioner.

Garbo didn't have to take the bus -- she owns a car. In fact, she could drive the route that took 50 minutes by bus in about 25 minutes.

"I was willing to give up time in order to give back to the environment," she said.

In the process Garbo got more than she bargained for -- deep friendships that developed with other riders. About a dozen riders took the friendship off the bus once a month when they stopped for happy hour and dinner before getting on another bus for the rest of the ride home.

"It is very cool," she said.

But in March 2009, when a budget shortfall forced Metro to make deep service cuts, Garbo had no choice but to get back in her car. Her bus was eliminated.

Garbo was hopeful her bus would be restored after voters approved a half-cent sales tax. But she learned about two months ago her bus would not be one of those restored.

But Garbo's not giving up hope. She checks Metro's website and plans to call for the latest changes.

Garbo says she would love to take the bus again. "I would definitely do it in a heart beat."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long written on transportion.

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