Service Cuts Restored, Thanks to MCU

Buses return in force Monday

Originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on August 23rd, 2010.

By Ken Leiser

After years of scaling back bus routes and MetroLink schedules, the Metro transit agency is adding a new word to its vocabulary: restoration.

Metro on Monday will make good on its promise to restore much of the bus service that at one point appeared long gone because of chronic budget shortfalls.

St. Louis County voters' passage of Proposition A in April boosted the sales taxes dedicated to transit in the county, and also triggered collections in the city of St. Louis because of a voter-approved tax passed in the 1990s but never enacted.

"It is one of the more hopeful things going on in the region right now, especially when you look at the budget cuts that are happening at the state level," said Katie Jansen Larson, executive director of Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis, an interdenominational coalition.

Larson's group was one of several that pushed Proposition A this spring, saying that building up service was key to helping people get to jobs and schools.

With the new influx of money, Metro intends to restore 97 percent of the service miles that were in place before cuts were made in March 2009, said Ray Friem, Metro's chief operating officer of transit services.

Riders should expect added trips throughout the area and better connections between bus routes, Metro officials said. Metro started rolling out its first phase of added bus service in late June, and Monday's additions will complete the restoration.

"There are a lot of changes," Friem said. "It's just about every corner of the system."

Metro's plan will feature some new wrinkles.

Some of the longer bus routes — including those serving Earth City, Lindbergh Boulevard and Manchester Road — will be split into multiple routes. Friem said splitting routes will allow Metro to keep more buses running on time, make it easier to schedule drivers and offer more direct service.

But the job will be complicated by a lack of buses. That's because the agency's financial problems in previous years threw a wrench into its bus-purchasing cycle.

Two 24-bus orders were canceled, and another was deferred. Metro is now scrambling to find replacement buses. Friem hopes the first batch of new buses will reach the region before the end of the year.

"I'm hitting the street (on Monday) about 50 buses short of what I was in March 2009," he said.

Metro will have to leverage its bus fleet to step up service. In order to put the additional buses on the street this year, Friem said, the agency will increase the average number of miles a bus is driven in a year to 60,000, from 48,000.

Metro expects to have 118 more bus drivers than it did before the passage of Proposition A.

"The clear beneficiaries are the people who are going to be using the public transportation system to get where they need to be," said Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, who helped oversee the Proposition A campaign and whose students and employees are frequent users of the transit system.

Donald Walker of Wellston, who began studying computer programming at ITT Technical Institute in Earth City on Monday, said he hopes the new service will reduce his wait time. Now, he said, it takes him about 45 minutes to take two buses and MetroLink to school.

"This works out pretty good," he said.

The changes will not affect MetroLink train schedules. A major rehab project on the Eads Bridge prevents more trains from being added to the schedule for now, Friem said.

Metro is trying to get word of the bus changes to riders. Agency workers have been handing out new schedules and fliers for the last two weeks. This week, Metro employees will be at MetroLink stations and transit centers throughout the region.

Originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on August 23rd, 2010 and can be found at:

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/article_26cb84f4-7083-5be3-8e17-ce9a4524b638.html