Rider Paradox: Surge in Mass, Drop in Transit

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The New York Times

Rider Paradox: Surge in Mass, Drop in Transit

by
Michael Cooper

St. Louis is girding itself for some of the most drastic service cuts in the country. (Dilip Vishwanat for The New York Times)

ST. LOUIS - Buses will no longer stop at some 2,300 stops in and around this city at the end of next month because, despite rising ridership, the struggling transit system plans to balance its books with layoffs and drastic service cuts.

One stop scheduled to be cut is in the western suburb of Chesterfield, Mo., just up the road from a bright, cheerful nursing home called the Garden View Care Center. Without those buses, roughly half of the center's kitchen staff and half of its housekeeping staff - people like Laura Buxton, a cook known for her fried chicken who comes in from Illinois, and Danette Nacoste, who commutes two hours each way from her home in South St. Louis to her job in the laundry - will not have any other way to get to work.

"They're going to be stranding a whole lot of people," said Val Butler, a nurses' assistant at Garden View, who said that she feared looking for work elsewhere in a tightening economy. "A lot of people are going to lose their jobs. A lot of people."

St. Louis may be girding itself for some of the most extreme transit cuts in the nation, but it is hardly alone. Transit systems across the country are raising fares and cutting service even when demand is up with record numbers of riders last year, many of whom fled $4-a-gallon gas prices and stop-and-go traffic for seats on buses and trains.

Their problem is that fare-box revenue accounts for only a fifth to a half of the operating revenue of most transit systems - and the sputtering economy has eroded the state and local tax collections that the systems depend on to keep running. "We've termed it the ‘transit paradox,' " said Clarence W. Marsella, general manager of Denver's system, which is raising fares and cutting service to make up for the steep drop in local sales tax.

The billions of dollars that Congress plans to spend on mass transit as part of the stimulus bill will also do little to help these systems with their current problems. That is because the new federal money - $12 billion was included in the version passed last week by the House, while the Senate originally proposed less - is devoted to big capital projects, like buying train cars and buses and building or repairing tracks and stations. Money that some lawmakers had proposed to help transit systems pay operating costs, and avoid layoffs and service cuts, was not included in the latest version.

The Washington Metro set a record on Inauguration Day last month when people made 1.5 million trips on it to see the swearing-in of President Obama, but its $176 million budget gap means that it is planning to cut service and eliminate 900 jobs. Chicago had its biggest gain in riders in three decades last year, but was forced to raise fares. Charlotte, N.C., whose new light-rail system is the envy of transit planners around the country, and which is enjoying its biggest ridership levels since "the days of streetcars," according to Keith Parker, the transit system's chief executive, will be running its new trains less frequently, raising fares and cutting back on bus service.

In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considering steep fare increases and its deepest service cuts in years to help close a $1.2 billion deficit. In addition to considering a 23 percent increase in fares and tolls, the authority is weighing plans to eliminate more than two dozen city bus routes and two subway lines, reduce off-peak service and even close some subway stations at night.

The nation's transit woes threaten to deal another blow to the weak economy, keeping some workers from jobs they commute to and forcing some systems to lay off administrators, bus drivers, train operators and mechanics. And while the economic stimulus package being considered on Capitol Hill includes tax cuts intended to put more spending money in people's pockets, fare increases promise to take a big bite for many commuters.

Big systems in Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco, and smaller ones across the nation, find themselves weighing cuts or fare increases that they fear could erode the gains they have made in attracting new riders. Beverly A. Scott, general manger of Marta, the Atlanta system, said as the sales tax revenue continued to drop, she was weighing everything from fare increases to service cuts to even selling the naming rights to stations - but she still hopes for more state support.

William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group, wrote to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, last month urging her to include money for operating costs in the stimulus bill.

"Public transportation ridership is surging across the country," he wrote, "increasing 6.5 percent in the third quarter of 2008 - the largest quarterly increase in the past 25 years, but transit systems are cutting service, increasing fares and laying off employees as a result of increased transit fuel costs in the past year and declining state and local revenue sources that support transit."

So even as the federal government plans to buy new train cars and buses for some transit systems, places like St. Louis find themselves without enough money to pay the bus drivers and light-rail train operators that they have now.

"I have 165 buses that I'm going to have to put in mothballs," said Ray Friem, the chief operating officer at Metro, the St. Louis system. "There's a ton of federal money tied up in those assets."

Money is so tight that the agency is not planning to rip out the bus stop signs that dot the roads, though they will soon be misleading. Instead, at the transit system's headquarters upriver from the Gateway Arch, officials last week put the final touches on a model of a vinyl hood they plan to drape over each sign. "We regret due to a lack of funding, service to this stop is suspended," the prototype said.

St. Louis is in some respects unique. It was in the minority of transit systems that lost a ballot measure in November seeking more money; voters rejected a proposal to raise the local sales tax to help pay for more public transportation. Transit officials said they believed their efforts had been hurt by lingering public resentment over a light-rail expansion project that was delayed and went over budget, devolving into messy litigation with contractors that ended up costing the transit system even more.

Faced with a yawning shortfall, despite an 8 percent increase in ridership last year, the system reluctantly decided to cut nearly half of its bus service; lay off nearly 600 of its workers, or a quarter of its work force, and reduce service on its red, white and blue MetroLink light-rail cars - the modern successors of the clanging trolleys that Judy Garland sang about in "Meet Me in St. Louis." Absent a windfall, the cuts are scheduled to take effect at the end of March.

Some people who worked on the failed campaign to raise the sales tax said their efforts were complicated because most local voters do not regularly take public transportation. But in the leafy suburbs west of Interstate 270, which are scheduled to lose almost all of their bus service, many people will soon discover that even if they do not take buses themselves, they rely on them to bring workers to their shopping malls, office parks, hospitals and nursing homes.

The Garden View Care Center, in Chesterfield, is part of a cluster of a dozen facilities sometimes called nursing home row. Rhonda Uhlenbrock, the center's administrator, has been working with agencies that set up car pools and trying to coordinate with other businesses that will be affected to see if she can find other ways for her employees, many of whom do not have cars, to get to work.

"This place could survive without me," Ms. Uhlenbrock said in her office recently, where she was assembling a collage to honor employees who have been at the center more than 10 years. "But not without them. They are the people who do the work."

Ms. Nacoste, who rises at 3:45 a.m. for her two-hour commute to work in the housekeeping and laundry department, said employers closer to home either paid less or were not hiring. She shook her head at the thought that the weak economy was leading to cuts in bus service.

"They're going to make the economy worse if they cut the bus," Ms. Nacoste said. "There's going to be unemployment, people running out of money. What are we going to do?"

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