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Altered Metro bus routes, driver shortage confuse, delay some riders

DOWNTOWN – It was a perfect storm of confusion and delay for MetroBus riders Monday as new routes were implemented across the St. Louis region, and, on the same day, about one in every five Metro bus drivers didn’t show up for work.

Lunchtime Monday at the 14th Street Metro bus hub downtown was no picnic for many riders trying to navigate schedule and route changes that went into effect that day. MetroBus staffers walked the station platform guiding puzzled patrons and fielding their questions. 

Daily rider Darren Jones was distraught, even after talking to one of the staffers. 

“It’s screwed up big time. I waited on my bus for one and half hours before I realized I had to catch another bus to get down here,” said Jones, who had to wait an additional hour once he reached the hub transfer. 

“It’s really hard for elderly people,” said Darryl Phillips, 61, who has an ailing back and knees. His bus route was cut completely, which means he has to walk several blocks to another one.  

“They don’t seem to care about the working class, just people going to games and that sort of thing,” Phillips surmised.  

The region’s transit authority has said repeatedly in recent months that the changes are actually aimed toward a more efficient ride for those who use the system the most. The busiest routes have been prioritized along with the busiest stops. Most of the stops that were cut were not used as often. Having fewer stops, according to Metro, will allow for overall commute times to be shorter.

But none of that reasoning stopped the complaints. 

Sharee Johnson was critical of the changes and about what she perceived as not having a say in the process.   

“I think it’s ridiculous. I had to wait for an hour today,” she said. “It’s confusing. It will make you late for work.”  

Johnson was mistaken about public input. Metro held a series of at least eight meetings in 2018 seeking the input of riders. Two more meetings were held in August for anyone with questions about how routes would be changing.

Metro spokesperson Patti Beck said, “We hope that once they get used to these changes, they will realize it’s what they asked for.”

Some riders, such as Donald Nelson, didn’t have any problems.

“My bus hasn’t changed, so it’s been OK for me,” he said. “I just had to find where to sit to catch it.” 

On top of the confusion, there were also delays. 

Bi-State Development, the parent of Metro, is currently in negotiations with the union representing, among others, Metro’s bus drivers. Social media had been rampant with reports of an organized “sick out” among drivers.   

The numbers appear to indicate that happened. Beck told MetroSTL.com that about 115 drivers, approximately 20 percent of the transit systems staff, called in sick Monday.

When asked whether that indicated a job action because of the contract negotiations, Beck replied, “I don’t have info on that. I can’t speculate on why our bus operators called off. That would be a question for them. They did create delays for our customers.

‘What we have done is we have deployed transit service managers and people with training and CDL licenses who can drive.”

One Metro staffer, who didn’t identify herself, confirmed that sick calls had been an issue in operations and that for much of the day the system was short-staffed. They had been trying to get as many qualified drivers as possible, she said.

But the drivers union was denying any sort of planned protest by its members.  MetroSTL.com spoke by phone to Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 788 president Reginald Howard and asked directly if there was some sort of job action taking place Monday.

“Not at all,” Howard said. “The union can’t stand behind something like that.”

But Howard also confirmed that the union was in the middle of contract negotiations with the transit system.  

In fact, the ATU Local 788 Facebook page lists Sept. 30 as a “discussion day” on the latest proposal from Bi-State Development, with votes to be cast on Oct. 1.  

The staffer at the hub Monday also confirmed the voting on Tuesday, saying, “Hopefully they will show up [Tuesday].”

Bill Beene

bill.beene@thenorthsider.com Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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