With Call-A-Ride cutting routes, riders affected feel ‘trapped’
Rhonda Jones desperately wants to attend her church in north St. Louis County, but the 72-year-old, who is blind, has not been able to get a ride on Sundays from Metro Call-A-Ride in over a month.
Jones is a worship singer at Florissant Assembly of God and relies on Call-A-Ride to take her to church, the grocery store, medical appointments and community gatherings. The paratransit service has been her lifeline for over 25 years.
For nearly two years now, Jones and other Metro riders have experienced longer reservation wait times and cancellations, because the St. Louis area is struggling to keep employees and attract new ones.
Since the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, Bi-State Development had to cut routes across the St. Louis region because of the lack of bus drivers and other staff. Now, the cuts have reached the bus service for people with disabilities for the first time in seven years. About 250 people in outlying parts of St. Louis County who use Call-A-Ride will have to find other transportation beginning April 10.
Advocates for people with disabilities have been trying to fight the cutbacks but have not been successful. They filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration last week because Metro did not delay the changes.
The route cuts are disappointing because some people who use the bus service will not be able to freely move around to get where they need to go, Jones said.
“I really don't have any other alternative,” she said. “I feel like we are literally trapped.”
Metro officials announced on Feb. 28 that they would scale back Call-A-Ride services for those living more than three-quarters of a mile from an existing MetroBus or MetroLink service area. Officials said they eliminated the routes because they were outside of Metro Transit’s federally obligated service areas.
Jones’ apartment complex off Patterson Road and Greenway Chase Drive in north county is just outside those boundaries. She said she would have been within the service area if Metro would not have moved the nearest bus route to her home last year.
Jones said she would not have renewed her apartment lease if Metro would have provided a timely notice of the service cuts.
“We've been here 14 years,” she said. “We renewed our lease not knowing we were going to lose Call-A-Ride.”
Jones reached out to Metro and other organizations who assist people with disabilities to find other transportation options. She contemplated using rideshares to get around the region, but she cannot operate the applications on her phone to book rides because she cannot see them, and she said they will ultimately become too expensive for her to keep up with.
People are going to have to start taking Uber or Lyft or a cab to get to work or medical appointments, and if they can’t afford it, some will lose their jobs, said Robyn Wallen, transportation chair at Missouri Council of the Blind.
In a recent letter to Jeff Butler, Metro’s Call-A-Ride general manager, Wallen and other advocates for people with disabilities asked if Metro could pause the service changes for six months to allow them to hire more staff to better assist riders.
In Butler’s response, he said Metro officials will have to continue with the ride cuts because 40% of Call-A-Ride operator positions are unfilled and the shortage causes clients to receive unreliable service.
Wallen said she has tried to provide Metro officials with other options to help disabled people with public transportation but has been met with opposition. She and other advocates have provided a list of other transportation options that transit companies across the country are using to help limit route changes.
“These are not new options we're bringing to the table, these options have been told to them for a long time,” she said.
In the complaint to the FTA, advocates laid out the challenges many riders have faced over time, which include being provided reservation times outside of the requested pickup or drop-off time.
Metro will not pause the Call-A-Ride service cut date because it must provide better services for all Metro riders, said Charles Stewart Jr., Metro's chief operating officer.
“It's something that we've needed to do for quite a long time now,” he said. “Changing the dates is not going to change the impact. What we've tried to do is to communicate to people exactly what we're doing.”
Public transit companies across the nation are in bind and are struggling to keep employees and attract new ones, which is causing service changes. According to a recent report by TransitCenter, a public transportation advocacy group, the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has been detrimental to transit companies. The report suggests that many drivers have retired or moved on to other jobs.
Since March 2020, the number of voluntary resignations has doubled, according to Metro. Many former employees had child care issues, needed safer working conditions during the pandemic or wanted a better-paying job. In January, Metro denied about 17,000 out of 47,000 service requests because it did not have enough drivers to cover the trips. Call-A-Ride needs about 80 additional drivers.
“It’s not like we are dropping everybody, we're trying to provide a better service to those people that we are required to serve,” Stewart said.
Transit officials are directing riders who are affected by the service changes to contact Via Metro STL, MoRides, Ridefinders or Mo Healthnet for other transportation options.
Disability advocates informed Metro officials that not all of the alternate options are wheelchair accessible. They also warned that the impact could be more significant than envisioned.
“It affects every single person who rides because there is always a possibility that a current customer may have to go in that area that's no longer served,” Wallen said.
‘Losing our independence’
Keasha Orbon has been riding Call-A-Ride since the 1990s. The Hazelwood resident rides the paratransit service bus because she is legally blind. Over the past few weeks, she’s missed appointments because Metro denied her rides and her husband has had to rearrange his work schedule to take Orban to work or doctor’s appointments.
“Fortunately my work works with me to accommodate some of this stuff, but I'm sure they're growing a little tired of it themselves,” Allen Orban said. “They want me there to do my job, so it's a little stressful for everybody.”
The Orbans live in the area that will no longer receive service.
“This is the first time I've ever been removed out of the area, and it’s … a little bubble on their map and … you wouldn't even think that that area would have been removed because I'm so close to major interstates,” Keasha Orban said.
She spoke with Metro and was told she could get a ride if she could walk about a third of a mile down the street and wait in front of another home. The suggestion is not acceptable to her, because she only has peripheral vision and cannot make out things in front of her, which could put her in a potentially dangerous situation if she walks.
“It makes me sad to lose some of my mobility,” she said.
However, Orban is mostly concerned that she might miss more days at work or arrive later because of the route cuts.
“You are always worried that if you miss too much work then you will lose your job,” she said. “And so many of us on Social Security depend on these extra little jobs that we have to help make ends meet.”