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St. Louis Metro Transit Cuts Service Amid Worker Shortage

The transit agency normally employs about 2,300, but is currently down about 150 workers, forcing it to trim services for dozens of bus routes. It is offering $2,000 hiring bonuses and may consider rehiring retired operators.

(TNS) — Starting Monday, St. Louis' Metro Transit is reducing its service amid a significant worker shortage, with changes coming to dozens of bus routes and six others being suspended.

For some riders, the worker shortfall has been evident for a while, with buses arriving late or not showing up at all. But Metro's response will make a bad situation that much worse, some said.

"It's going to be an inconvenience because the buses are already super slow," said Ali Bigham, 49, who lives in Jennings and manages a Wingstop restaurant in south St. Louis County — a trek that requires multiple bus lines and more than an hour of time. "It makes me really want to get my car fixed."

Metro's move illustrates the ongoing employment difficulties felt not just in the transportation sector but across many industries nationwide. Agency officials acknowledged the tough spot in which it would put some riders but said they were backed into a corner.

"Our employment crisis is at such a depth that we had to reduce service temporarily while we try to increase our employment," said Taulby Roach, the president and CEO of Bi-State Development, the agency that oversees the region's public transit agency. "We had to make a hard decision about what we could reasonably sustain."

Metro, which normally employs roughly 2,300 people, is currently down about 150 workers, Roach said.

About 110 of those vacancies are operator positions — or nearly 10 percent of the operator employment levels that the organization tries to maintain, according to budgets from recent years. Meanwhile, many of Metro's other staffing needs are for mechanics — highly skilled positions that Roach said are especially competitive to hire right now.

Roach said losing about six or seven employees in a given month had been considered normal. But for nearly a year, losses have climbed to about 20 departures each month as workers take different jobs, retire or leave for other reasons.

"You stack too many of those months on top of each other, and you've got an employment crisis," said Roach.

'Begging' for Help

The agency is making a push to bolster the people on its payroll — organizing job fairs, offering $2,000 hiring bonuses and even exploring whether it temporarily can bring back retired operators. Roach said those recruiting efforts so far have only "been able to move the needle a little bit."

Now, the system is resorting to service trims. Starting Monday, changes such as less frequent service will hit 38 bus routes — affecting more than half of the routes on the Missouri side of the entire service area. That includes six lines that will be suspended.

Metro representatives were unable to estimate how many passengers might be affected by the changes but said they aimed to minimize the impacts by generally suspending the least-traveled bus routes.

Ahead of the changes, Metro riders said no-show buses and long waits had become increasingly common in recent months.

On the chilly Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, a handful of passengers braved the cold at Metro's transit center in Shrewsbury, waiting for the No. 46 bus — one of the lines targeted for suspension — which heads to Tesson Ferry Road and Mercy South Hospital in South County. Some waited more than an hour before finally boarding, after one scheduled bus never showed.

But losing the line entirely, even just temporarily, will be even worse, the riders said. Metro's changes had passengers scrambling to "figure out rides," said Bonney Nelson, a 35-year-old St. Louis resident. She and fellow riders were bracing for the need to use more bus lines — and more patience.

Scattered along the No. 46 route were plenty of signs reflecting the need for workers across all industries. On one corner, the marquee at a White Castle fast-food restaurant was used solely as a "now hiring" sign — advertising jobs at $15 an hour, with weekly paychecks. Not far to the north, a billboard heralded $500 "sign-on" bonuses for new hires at a pharmaceutical packaging company, while another flashed an ad seeking licensed plumbers.

Roach said Metro has "never had a circumstance where we were literally begging for employees" as is now the case.

Transit systems around the country are facing the same pressure. The agency serving Austin, Texas, was just forced to cut 15 percent of its service, Roach said. In Denver, he said bonuses of $4,000 have been dangled to entice new hires. And in Atlanta, the regional transit system raised wages by $2 an hour without even negotiating with the employees' union.

Roach said Metro is watching other agencies closely, to potentially borrow ideas about navigating worker shortages. Given what the labor market is dictating, he said that he's open to raising pay beyond the current average of $24.83 per hour for operators.

"If we need to move a little of our investment their way, then that's what we need to do," he said. "So be it."

Recovering Riders

While workforce declines are a top challenge for Metro, it's not the only one. Metro also has seen its ridership decline by about 40 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels. (Although its revenue similarly took a COVID-induced plunge, those losses were offset by federal funding from sources like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.)

How to regain those riders is a key question for Metro. Even as the pandemic has eased, it has not coincided with a dramatic rebound of ridership — a phenomenon at least partly attributed to "changes in workforce transit patterns including telecommuting," according to an analysis in the agency's 2021 budget.

Metro's temporary reduction of service comes little more than a week after its leaders voted to pursue $52 million for upgrades, including the installation of turnstiles at MetroLink light rail stations — part of the agency's aim to boost the "perception of safety" for the system.

When asked if that money could be better spent addressing worker shortages, Roach said the two types of expenditures were not "mutually exclusive." Moreover, he said the addition of turnstiles is the type of "bold" move that Metro needs, noting that "a lot of folks have been looking for more rigorous safety and control on MetroLink."

He also said that Metro's current difficulty maintaining service on its system does not suggest nor signal that the agency would struggle to operate a bigger network in the future, as area leaders discuss plans for expansion.

"One is a short-term issue and one is a long-term issue," said Roach, adding that the recently passed federal infrastructure bill presents an "unprecedented" opportunity for the agency to explore expansion. He said the package includes more than $33 billion for which the transit system is eligible to apply.

Rider Options

Help is available to Metro riders in some places where routes are being suspended. A ride-sharing "microtransit" service called Via — being examined by Metro on a pilot basis — lets passengers hail a van to travel within a given area for $2, or for free with a valid Metro Transit bus pass or MetroLink ride, said Jerry Vallely, a Metro spokesman.

Metro began offering rides with Via earlier this year in parts of north and south St. Louis County. Vallely described it as a "first-mile, last-mile option" that can be paired with longer rides on Metro's system and compared it to a "more affordable Lyft or Uber."

Some riders on the No. 46 route in South County said they were aware of Via and might try it out. Others had not heard of it.

Others expressed concern about sharing van rides amid a pandemic and lamented the reductions in Metro service. That includes the planned stoppage of bus service after 8 p.m. on three lines in North County, such as the No. 79 route in Ferguson.

Erica Brooks, a Ferguson resident speaking at a recent St. Louis County Council meeting, rattled off a list of employers and employees who would be affected by disruptions to local Metro service — explaining that it is a main source of transportation for many workers with late shifts.

"I need the county to please stand up and make sure we keep service after 8," she said.

(c)2021 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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