ST. LOUIS – As of Monday, Sept. 30, every bus route in the city and St. Louis County changed. On some of the system’s most heavily traveled routes, buses will now run every 15 minutes. Lightly traveled routes have had service either eliminated or scaled back. Hundreds of bus stops have been eliminated, in addition to the more than 400 bus stops shut down this summer.
Construction is underway at five MetroLink stations to require passengers to purchase a ticket and have it checked by security before they can even get on the platform. Eliminating the so-called honor system of ticketing will soon spread throughout the system. And presence of armed, uniformed St. Louis city and county police, and St. Clair County sheriff’s deputies, is being increased throughout the system.
As the city’s population fell, the metro area population stagnated and crime continued to scare off riders, the total number of passengers using the bus and MetroLink systems has plummeted by an astonishing 20 percent over the past five years. The so-called “Metro Reimagined” plan has dealt with the reduction in riders and money by looking at the routes riders use most, and concentrating services there.
Half of Metro’s total ridership, bus and rail, is packed into only 10 bus lines. And as of Sept. 30, service on those lines has been increased, in many cases with buses running every 10 to 15 minutes.
“We get a tremendous ridership out of some of these big, high-frequency routes,” said Taulby Roach, the CEO of Bi-State Development, which runs Metro. “So on routes like Grand, and Kingshighway, and in the county, the Chambers Road route, we get a tremendous ridership, in some cases full buses on those routes. So why shouldn’t we increase the frequency and move to where the customer demand is?”
But as service is being beefed up on those routes, less-used bus routes are being eliminated or truncated, with hundreds of bus stops in the city and county being eliminated, in addition to the more than 400 bus stops already closed this summer.
“In some of the less-used routes, it’s hard for us to operate a 40-foot bus,” Roach said. “So part of our ‘Mobility as a Service’ program is going to other options, including things like partnerships with Lyft or Uber.”
All this was made necessary because, between 2014 and now, one out of every five riders has abandoned Metro. The 20 percent drop in ridership has been due to many factors, including a shrinking city population, a stagnant metropolitan area population, gasoline prices that have stabilized at relatively low levels, and low interest rates that have made loans to buy new and used cars cheaper.
But the single biggest reason for the decline seems to be fear of crime after a series of violent incidents and homicides, especially on MetroLink. That, in turn, has been blamed on a lack of law enforcement presence on trains and buses.
One problem has been that while three different law enforcement agencies are responsible for Metro security, each deployed relatively few officers on trains, and none on buses, and all communicated on different radio frequencies, so it was impossible for them to communicate directly.
“Standardizing the communication among city police, county police, and St, Clair County sheriff’s deputies has resulted in a lot of our crime rate going down and compressing,” Roach said. “But we’re not there yet.”
A federally mandated security survey of the system, written in 2017, recommended that Metro develop its own police force, responsible strictly for patrolling mass transit.
Appearing on “The Jaco Report,” Roach flatly rejected that recommendation.
“One of the things I know I don’t have the capability of is to run a fully staffed police force, with all the training that is necessary for full police,” he said. “But I do have three professional police departments that do a very good job.”
Another problem for Metro has been the so-called “honor system” on MetroLink that allows people to board trains without having purchased a ticket. The only way they can be caught is if a Metro employee or a police officer asks a passenger to show the ticket.
Roach said that would soon be eliminated. The new MetroLink station in the Cortex technology district requires a purchased ticket before passengers can even get onto the platform. Five more stations are being retrofitted to require a ticket purchase, with tickets being checked by security personnel.
Eventually, Roach said, every MetroLink station will require a ticket.
“We’re going to be spending $20 million on security. And prime on that list is moving to access control,” he said. “That means funneling passengers to an access point manned by security, and every single person will be fare-checked.”