Two low-ridership bus routes in south St. Louis County and St. Clair County will be replaced Monday by on-demand van services that already have been running to familiarize potential customers with them.
The elimination of Metro Transit’s 101 Fenton Connector and the St. Clair County Transit District’s 17X Lebanon-Mascoutah bus lines are the latest in a series of service tweaks the agencies have experimented with to try to stem declining ridership.
Public transit operations across the country have been doing the same as part of a trend toward new services labeled as microtransit.
Another Metro program, begun in October 2019, offers subsidized $1 trips via Lyft, the ride-hailing company, to bus stops, transit centers and MetroLink stations in some areas not close to bus routes.
It now covers trips starting or stopping within 500 feet of 28 street corridors and other locations in St. Louis and St. Louis County, more than half of them in north St. Louis County.
“Our motivation is to make service more attractive and competitive and increase our productivity,” said Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro’s executive director.
The two agencies contract with New York-based Via Transportation Inc. to run the vans replacing the bus lines that just ended. Customers can use smartphone apps or call a phone number to order a ride anywhere in predetermined geographic zones.
The South County vans, which use the name Via Metro StL, have been running since late June free of charge.
That will continue until early next year when Metro will begin charging $2 a ride within a designated service zone and $3 a ride with transfer to Metro buses or MetroLink trains.
The zone for the six-passenger South County vans, which now carry a maximum of four due to coronavirus-related distancing rules, emphasizes the Fenton-Valley Park area — taking in places such as St. Clare Hospital, the Gravois Bluffs shopping district and Valley Park City Hall.
But it also extends southeast to include the area around Mercy Hospital South on Tesson Ferry Road.
The vans, running from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, also take riders much further north to the Shrewsbury MetroLink station outside the zone. The discontinued bus line linked that station to Gravois Bluffs and St. Clare Hospital.
The St. Clair County service, called SCCTD VanGo, started Oct. 19 on a free-ride introductory basis and covers a zone in the Lebanon and Mascoutah areas.
The vans there, operating from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, seat up to 12 but pandemic rules currently limit ridership to four or five, said Ken Sharkey, the St. Clair County district’s managing director.
Beginning Tuesday, riders will have to start paying $3 a trip but a friend or family member can come along for $1.50. Rides to and from the Shiloh/Scott MetroLink station cost $1. The bus route being replaced was operated by Metro Transit by contract with the district.
“The industry is transforming,” Sharkey said. “You’ve got to change with the times.”
While officials with the agencies hope that the new service options will help their bottom lines after the coronavirus pandemic dissipates, the union representing MetroBus and MetroLink operators is wary about the changes.
Reggie Howard, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788, said he and other union officials worry that contracting with nonunion companies such as Via and Lyft eventually could result in union job losses, especially if the contracts are expanded later.
“I feel like that’s our work,” Howard said.
He points out that Local 788 members already operate Metro’s Call-A-Ride on-demand van service for disabled and other customers in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
In response, Mefford-Miller said it’s not financially feasible to continue operating Metro’s services in exactly the way they’ve been run for decades.
However, she also said “the overwhelming majority of Metro services are and will likely be provided by our ... professional ATU bus and van operators.”
The Lyft program was expanded last spring due to bus service cuts related to the pandemic.
In addition to the South County van service, Metro last June began using Via Metro StL on a more limited basis in a large swath of St. Louis County north of Interstate 270 when regular bus service is reduced or has ended for the day.
Those North County vans, which also are now free, are available within that zone daily from 10:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.
“We have enough demand in this market to sustain the fixed route service” the rest of the time, Mefford-Miller said.
The North County vans also connect to the Riverview Transit Center further south. Like with the van service in South County, a $2 charge will be instituted early next year.
St. Clair County, meanwhile, began a separate on-demand van service last November to take East St. Louis area residents from homes, employers and schools to and from four nearby MetroLink stations.
He said it was renewed in May for another year and expanded to include nearby Fairmont City in June. The one-way fare is $3; the service operates from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.
That van service is operated by ATS, a nonprofit overseen by Southwestern Illinois College that the district already contracted with to provide paratransit van service for people with disabilities. Those drivers are represented by a union other than the ATU, he said.
Sharkey and Mefford-Miller both said it’s possible that the microtransit services could be expanded or changed but that those decisions ultimately would be based on how the public responds.