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Former Metro riders driven from mass transit to individual vans

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 30, 2009 - Mary Klein of Manchester and Jane Suozzi of Ballwin are just the kind of riders Robert Baer, president and CEO of Metro, fears the agency will lose because of its recent service cuts.

As Metro was slashing 44 percent of its bus and train service last month, Baer warned that the cuts, necessitated by a $70 million budget shortfall, could have far-reaching effects on ridership. Even if a new funding source were found, Metro might fail to draw back some of its former customers, especially commuters forced to find other travel options, he said.

Count Klein and Suozzi among those former customers who probably won't be back.

When Metro announced that it would cut service, including all bus service north and west of Interstate 270, Klein and Suozzi knew they could drive their own vehicles to work.

But the women also knew they didn't want to. They had come to like the money they saved on gas and parking downtown as well as the lower insurance costs from not using their cars to drive to work. They also enjoyed avoiding the stress of a daily commute by leaving the driving to someone else.

Klein, who had started riding the bus last May, began thinking of alternatives when the cuts threatened to eliminate her bus.

"I realized Metro was not going to come up with the funds" to keep the buses running, she said. "I started asking some of my new friends I had met by riding the bus what their plans were."

Klein realized she was willing to drive a van. "Size doesn't scare me," she said. She'd often drive her husband's big pick-up truck, and in January she and her husband rented a van to drive to Charleston to attend a wedding. "It's not too different than the truck," she said.

She called RideFinders, a free ride matching service in the area, and asked what it would take to form a vanpool.

If she could get a group of up to 15 people together -- or RideFinders could help her do so -- they could lease a van for $600 a month, she learned. The fee covers the lease, insurance, maintenance and administrative costs. The group pays for gas and parking. It sounded good to Klein -- especially since she already knew some bus riders looking for ways to get to work.

"I had 12 people almost from the beginning," she said.

Suozzi, whom Klein knew from the bus, had registered with RideFinders hoping to find a vanpool to join. "The vans were all full," she said, "It was kind of a perfect opportunity to get a group of people and jump in all at once."

So Klein, who knew many of the other riders by first name only, handed out forms asking for phones numbers and email addresses.

When Metro made its cuts on March 30, the group was making its maiden vanpool run.

Klein is the primary driver with Suozzi and another rider as back-up drivers. The group benefits from the free parking at Klein's workplace and the fact that she's paying a share. Usually the primary driver, who is responsible for collecting monthly payments from the passengers and submitting them to RideFinders, fueling and washing the van and doing preventative maintenance on it, rides free.

Although the van holds 15, the group finds 12 a comfortable number, Suozzi said.

Most of the vanpoolers meet at a West County grocery store parking lot where, with the store manager's permission, they leave their cars during the day and park the van at night. They pick up other passengers at two stops along the way dropping off one rider at Saint Louis University. The rest of the vanpoolers work downtown and are dropped within a block or two of their workplaces before Klein goes to her job near Union Station.

So far everyone seems happy with the arrangement, Suozzi said. "I'm actually getting to work earlier than riding the bus but still leaving the house a little later than when I rode the bus.

"It's worked out great. We're prompt. If you're not there, someone's on the phone saying, 'Are you close?'"

The vanpoolers are happy with the price which compares favorably with the cost of a bus pass -- except for vanpoolers whose passes are provided by their employers.

"In May, we'll probably pay $65 (apiece) and nobody has to stand out in the rain or the snow or the heat and wait for a bus," Klein said. "I have it (the van) heated in the morning when everyone gets on and I'll have it air conditioned in the summer."

"If we retain 12 riders, it will be a dollar cheaper than my bus pass -- that is if gas prices stay reasonable," Suozzi said.

Klein got acquainted with Metro after she started feeling the sting of high price of gas last year especially when her husband lost his job. She says she never paid attention to buses until she found herself behind one on Big Bend. "I said, 'I wonder where this bus goes.'" The next day she checked out Metro's website and found the bus ran just a few blocks from her house and just a block from where she works behind Union Station.

"I thought this is so convenient," she said. "I just couldn't believe it. The very next morning I started taking the bus."

Suozzi started using the bus late last year when her workplace moved from Chesterfield, a 15-minute drive from her house, to downtown about 25 miles away. Even though it took longer to get to and from work, Suozzi, a self-described "chatterbox," enjoyed riding the bus and the people she met.

She liked saving on gas and the $85 she saved on parking. She also like being relieved of the stress of the long drive. "Once I'd been on the bus, it was relaxed and I could do what I wanted to do," she said. "I could talk -- it was just easy. The driving was just up to somebody else."

Klein, too, was impressed with the bus. "Everybody on the bus was very nice. The buses were clean. ... It was really a nice experience."

Still, Suozzi and Klein both see themselves as former Metro riders.

"I'm not anxious to get back on a bus," said Klein. "Right now if they buses came back, I'd keep the vanpool. It's more convenient. We get to work faster, we get home faster in the afternoon, there are not as many stops."

Suozzi agreed adding:

"We took a kind of random poll (among the vanpoolers) last week and nobody said, 'I'll go back to the bus.'"

Four new vanpools formed in the face of the Metro cuts, Joe Wright, director of RideFinders, said. Currently RideFinders has 97 van pools serving 1,015 riders in the St. Louis area with another one ready to start June 1. The agency also has 3,600 carpools with 8,300 people in them, he added. RideFinders is a free service that matches carpoolers and vanpoolers in St. Louis and the counties of St. Louis, Franklin, Jefferson, St. Charles, Madison, St. Clair and Monroe.

RideFinders estimates its carpoolers and vanpoolers save $33 million a year in commuting costs and 66 million miles a year. It also estimates the vanpools and carpools eliminate 2 million pounds of pollution a year.

For more info, go to the organization's website or call 800-847-7433 from Missouri or Illinois.

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on transportation.

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