Metro votes to cut services dramatically, despite protests of disability groups | St. Louis Public Radio

Metro votes to cut services dramatically, despite protests of disability groups

Dec 18, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 18, 2008 - Metro's Board of Commissioners made it official today. By a unanimous vote, the board decided to shrink MetroBus, MetroLink and Call-A-Ride service beginning March 30.  Their decision eliminates all service, including Call-A-Ride, west and south of Interstate 270, abolishes express bus routes and reduces MetroLink service -- and saves about $36 million in operating costs.

Consequently, there will be longer intervals between MetroLink trains and no additional service for special events. As a result, roughly 600 jobs, primarily bus and van drivers, will be lost.

Last month the board decided to raise fares twice over the next 22 months. On Jan. 1, fares will increase by 25 cents. They will increase by 25 cents again on July 1, 2010.

Both measures are necessary because voters defeated Proposition M in the November election, leaving the agency with a $45 million to $50 million shortfall in its operating budget, officials say. Metro critics say a state audit released earlier this year shows the agency has enough money to cover the shortfall. Proposition M would have increased the county sales tax by a half cent and would have raised an additional $80 million for the agency.

The plan the board approved today cuts bus service by 43.7 percent, MetroLink service by 32 percent and Call-A-Ride service by 15 percent.

The service reductions, especially the Call-A-Ride cuts, will hit the disabled and low-income wage earners especially hard, more than a dozen speakers told the board. Representatives from disability groups were joined by representatives from several colleges, nursing homes and the city of Chesterfield to protest the cuts. Nursing homes and some retailers in Chesterfield, such as Wal-Mart, have employees who rely on public transit to get to work.

Before the vote St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern told the Metro board he has directed the St. Clair County Transit District to advance Metro $1.9 million a year for 18 months ($2.7 million) so it can continue to operate the Shrewsbury MetroLink line to Fairview Heights.

The cuts the board approved later will reduce the Shrewsbury line to a "shuttle" operation. Instead of continuing to downtown St. Louis and crossing the river into Illinois, Shrewsbury trains will terminate at the Forest Park station where riders will have to transfer to another train to reach points east of there.

Kern said the transit district will make a payment in advance to be repaid over three years "as a credit for future service." It was not immediately clear if Metro would accept the plan.

Kern called Illinois MetroLink riders "innocent but injured bystanders" in the Metro budget crunch.

Despite a somewhat static population, Metro ridership has nearly doubled since the opening of MetroLink, and nearly 70 percent of the county's ridership is on MetroLink, he said. St. Clair County's bus service will not be cut because state and local taxpayers there provide the required subsidy, but its MetroLink service faces "severe curtailment," he said.

Of riders boarding trains in Illinois, 87.2 percent come to Missouri making MetroLink the principal connection to jobs and services on the Missouri side of the river, he said.

The board's vote to reduce service came despite pleas from some to delay a decision so alternative funding might be found to forestall or reduce the cuts.

Several speakers -- both from Illinois and Missouri -- criticized Missouri's legislators for not chipping in more funding for Metro.

"Our legislature in Springfield, unlike their counterparts in Jefferson City, have consistently supported and funded our efforts," Kern said. "This year St. Clair County Transit District is scheduled to receive 65 percent of its operating costs from the state of Illinois while Missouri provides virtually nothing for Missouri service."

He suggested that area businesses, sports teams and local governments "mount a series of aggressive attempts prior to March 30 and thereafter to ensure adequate funding and financing" is provided by the state for Metro in the future. "Pete Rahn, are you listening?" he asked. Rahn is the director of MoDOT.

Metro President and CEO Robert Baer apologized to the audience before the board voted."On behalf of all Metro employees, we want to apologize for what we're about to do. It's not something we want to do. It's something we must do."

Raymond A. Friem, senior vice president of transit operations, cautioned that as painful as the cuts are, they will only get the agency through 2010."We balanced the budget, and we just balanced the budget," he said. Even a balanced budget faces the unknown, he said.A drop in sales tax revenue, reductions in federal funding and a possible elimination in Medicaid subsidies for transportation would all have an impact on the bottom line.

If gas prices continue to go down, ridership could fall even more than expected after the cuts are implemented, he said. Although ridership was up almost 10 percent this year, it was up only 2 percent in November, probably because gas prices fell.

Our earlier story: 

Four days a week, a Call-A-Ride van picks up Robert Hinkle, 58, at his apartment in south St. Louis County and takes him to his job. As an education coach for Paraquad, a not-for-profit center for independent living, Hinkle works two days a week in Bridgeton and two in Maplewood. One evening a week, Call-A-Ride, operated by Metro, also takes Hinkle to Mullanphy School in St. Louis where he teaches an adult education class.

Now Hinkle, who has cerebral palsy and uses a scooter to get around, is wondering whether he'll still be able to get to work if Metro goes through with a drastic plan to shrink service.

Last week, Metro's Operation and Strategic Planning Committee referred to the agency's board of commissioners a plan to cut bus service by 43.7 percent, MetroLink service by 32 percent and Call-A-Ride service by 15 percent. The board is expected to consider the plan at its monthly meeting Friday.

The proposal has the disabled and others dependent on public transit on edge about how the cuts will affect their lives. Click here  to read about the proposed cuts.

Hinkle believes the cuts may not affect him because he lives just inside of Interstate 270 -- many proposed cuts are just beyond the interstate -- but he's not sure. The cause for concern: Call-A-Ride service is in danger wherever bus routes are cut. Following federal law, Metro offers Call-A-Ride service within three-quarters of a mile of any bus route. But if a bus route is cut -- even within the I-270 line -- Call-A-Ride service would go, too.

"I've heard people tell me I'm outside, I'm inside. I'm really not sure yet," he said.

A driver told Hinkle last week not to worry because he's inside the line. "He made me feel better about it than anyone else had," Hinkle said.

He also thinks the location of his apartment building is working in his favor.

"South County Mall is behind our place," he said. "To be honest with you, I can't see (Metro) pulling bus or any kind of public transportation away from a mall as big as South County Mall. I just don't see them doing that, but maybe I'm wrong."

Hinkle worries, though, about service in Bridgeton where he works two days a week.

"What I'm still trying to figure out -- what a lot of people are trying to figure out -- is if that is going to impact my ride to work," he said. "Even if I'm on the line down on this end, if they don't go all the way to the work destination, what are we going to do about that?"

Hinkle, president of the advisory board of the St. Louis Society for the Physically Disabled, says the cuts would have an impact on more than jobs. "We run a summer camp for disabled youth every June," he said. The organization uses Call-A-Ride to get staff -- and campers -- to the Kennedy Recreation Complex near Suson County Park. "All of us are scratching our heads because we're trying to figure out where we are," he said.

Manchester resident William Pathenos also wonders what will happen to him -- and to his fellow riders.

"It is going to change my life dramatically," Pathenos, 30, said.

He's used Call-A-Ride to get to his job as a customer service representative at Maritz in Fenton for the past two years. He also uses the service to visit his fiancee, he said.

"I've been a pretty consistent customer," he said. "I'm shocked to hear about what's going to happen." But, he admits, "I was always fearful of it."

Pathenos' 10-minute van ride to Fenton is a lot easier than getting to his previous job. He would catch a 4 a.m. bus on Manchester that took him to Kingshighway, where he transferred to another bus to downtown.

Pathenos, who has cerebral palsy and uses two canes to get around, is, however, upbeat about how he will cope with losing Call-A-Ride.

"I'm going to have to improvise," he said. "I'm probably going to have to rely on my mom to take me to work for a little while, but we will manage."

Still he regrets his loss of independence and having to rely on his parents. "I'm getting to a point in my life where the parents are getting to retirement age and they kind of want to do things for themselves," he said.

Pathenos said he was "actually very sad" to hear about Metro's cuts and worries about people who don't have families to take up the slack. "I think about the elderly lady who uses Call-A-Ride to go to the store," he said. "That's all she has. She doesn't have a back-up plan like her mom or dad or a brother or sister. People need this. They really do.

"I want to be an advocate for everyone, not just for myself."

Asa Pierce, transportation coordinator for St. Louis Society for the Physically Disabled, helps people make Call-A-Ride reservations. He predicts that any cutbacks will hurt 30 to 40 of the people he works with. Reservations cannot be made more than seven days in advance, and slots fill up fast, he said. People who work are often commuting or on the job during the hours calls are accepted.

"Trying to make it (a reservation) yourself is virtually impossible if you have to be at work at 8 o'clock and be there until 4:30, 5 o'clock," Pierce said. "One lady was trying to do it during her lunch time. By the time she called at 12 o'clock, all her (ride times) were gone."

Not all of Pierce's calls are to get people to and from work. One woman just wanted to go to the Fox Theatre on Dec. 5. "We tried on the Friday after Thanksgiving," he said. "That just didn't happen. We tried again on Monday (the next week) and all the way up until Thursday, but they still didn't have it. She wasn't able to attend that program because they didn't have transportation for her."

Jerry Ehrlich, executive director of the St. Louis Society, said that although his organization provides some transportation, up to 100 adults, many who live outside of I-270, use Call-A-Ride to get to and from his events.

"This is just our agency," he said. "Thousands in the disabled community rely on bus service. As we often say, 'You take away transportation, you're taking away the lifeline for many individuals with disabilities.'"

Pathenos summed up the feelings of many Call-A-Ride users: "A lot of people are going to have to redo their lives."

Inside Call-A-Ride

Metro, the St. Louis area's public transit agency, not only runs MetroBus and MetroLink light rail system, it also operates Metro Call-A-Ride.

"Call-A-Ride is the bus for people who can't ride the bus," Dianne Williams, Metro spokeswoman, said. "If a bus goes somewhere, you have to have an alternative for people with disabilities.

Metro Call-A-Ride provides curb-to-curb van service in St. Louis and St. Louis County with advance reservations. The agency's website says service in the north, west and south St. Louis County area is available every day and is open to the general public.

Service in the Call-A-Ride Plus area in the city is available every day but is restricted to persons with disabilities who have registered to use the service. Service in the county Call-A-Ride Plus area is restricted to Monday-Friday to persons with disabilities who have registered to use the service but it is open to the general public on Saturday and Sunday. Service in far west county area is available Saturday and Sunday and is open to the general public.

Metro has 120 Call-A-Ride vans that provided 690,000 trips last year, Williams said. Of the 54,829 trips in November, 89 percent were for disabled people, she said. "It would have been 66,000 had not 12,000 of them been cancelled by the rider." In 900 cases the passenger just didn't show up, she added.

The law requires that Metro offer Call-A-Ride within three-quarters of a mile from a bus stop or light rail station.

Eligibility for ADA paratransit services is not determined by a medical decision but by the applicant's ability to use the bus or light rail system, Williams said.

Currently ADA-eligible riders pay $3.50 per trip. That will increase to $4 next month. The cost of operating Call-A-Ride is $27 a ride leaving a substantial amount for taxpayers to cover. Non-ADA riders pay between $6 and $18 depending on the zones traveled.

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer in St. Louis.