When Madison County Transit (MCT) announced last summer it was switching Highland’s in-town bus from a demand-service, where riders would call and book rides to and from specific locations, to a fixed route, it was billed as an upgrade. However, many in the community are not sold that the new service is better. Others have gone as far as calling it a waste of money.
City Manager Mark Latham said he has seen very little demand for the new service, which started in May.
“And you have to a have a demand for it,” he said. “I have only seen a few people ride the shuttle at Walmart. But other than that, I have seen few riders on the shuttle… Hopefully, MCT will reevaluate what they will do (here). I wish I had an answer, but I don’t.”
Highland contributes about $600,000 annually to MCT through a 1/4 cent sales tax, though the in-town service is not the only thing local residents get for their money.
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MCT also links the city to other parts of the county, MetroLink, as well as downtown St. Louis, with other buses. For elderly and disabled residents who are unable to use the fixed-route buses, MCT provides complementary door-to-door service. MCT is also responsible for the construction and maintenance of more than 100 miles of bikeways that comprise the MCT Trails system, as well as overseeing RideFinders, the St. Louis region’s free carpooling and vanpooling program. Many of these are very popular. But the new in-town service has yet to catch on.
S.J. Morrison, MCT’s director of marketing and planning, said there were 381 boardings on the shuttle in December, 324 in November and 338 in October.
In prior News Leader stories, MCT officials said about 6,000 people rode EZ per year (500 per month) in Highland, although Morrison said a “quick look” at the old EZ Ride numbers over the last few years, revealed that it was only averaging about 60 boardings a month.
Morrison said MCT has taken public input into account when setting Highland’s shuttle routes. On Monday, the shuttle was re-routed to serve Highland Home and Faith Countryside Nursing Home. Morrison believes the new route will bring more boardings.
“These changes were made in response to requests from passengers and representatives of those facilities,” he said.
Morrison believes there are a number of people who don’t even know about the shuttle.
“Keep in mind, the Highland Shuttle is only about seven months old,” he added. “(We have found) it takes at least a year for folks to know it’s there and learn how it works.”
More stops needed?
The lack of shuttle riders prompted Highland School Board member Jim Gallatin to write a letter to the MCT and the governor.
Gallatin, who also volunteers as a driver for the St. Joseph’s Hospital Friends Van, believes the MCT is padding its boarding totals.
“I have rode the shuttle on two separate occasions,” he said. “Each time, there were only two other passengers on the the shuttle besides myself.”
Gallatin said he has suggested some potential stops to MCT that he believes would better service local residents, including the town Square, public library and food pantry.
Gallatin stated in his letters he has no problem with the shuttle route starting at Walmart.
“A lot of people go there to shop,” he said.
But Gallatin said shopping areas, like Northtown Plaza, and the downtown business district are “avoided” on the shuttle route.
Gallatin also questioned why residents of the Suppiger Lane loop, the area behind McDonald’s, can only get to Walmart by first taking the Route 13 bus.
“If Route 14 went through the Suppiger loop, it would have better ridership,” he said.
Gallatin said the Korte Rec Center, which was dropped from the route as of Monday, and Woodcrest Shopping Center (Kentucky Fried Chicken) would also be “good stops” for MCT.
“But they are limited, unless other changes are made first,” he said.
Morrison said MCT’s goal with the shuttles is to “provide mobility for folks who don’t have another option.”
“Those are folks who have a disability or that can’t afford or want a car for some reason,” he said. “There needs to be a way for these individuals to have some life sustaining mobility to get to the doctor’s appointments and be productive members in society so they can go to jobs, attend classes to better themselves, so they can go to the grocery store. All of those things are vital to the economy of a community.”
Mary Kay Durbin, a case worker at the Highland Area Christian Service Ministry, said those are exactly the types of people her organization serves. Durbin said she has repeatedly asked MCT to have a stop at the food pantry, but, each time, her requests have been denied by MCT for varying reasons.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” she said. “I understand (MCT) is trying to meet the demands of all people. But we are concerned about a number of our clients who don’t have any transportation. We thought (a shuttle stop) would be great. I am disappointed for our clients, who really need the transportation. They would be the ones who’d use it. It’s frustrating. It’s not user friendly. If people are not going to use the bus, are they going to stop it?”
Morrison said having a shuttle stop at the food pantry presents some challenges for MCT, as their drivers are not allowed to put a bus in reverse.
“And there is no real safe way to get one of our buses in and out of the food pantry,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t service it directly. And we know that is something people would like to see us serve. We come close.”
The closest shuttle stop to the food pantry is about a block away.
City Hall and St. Paul School are also not on MCT’s shuttle route.
Constantly seeking input
Morrison said the MCT Board reevaluates its bus and shuttle routes three times a year.
Anyone who is interested in seeing a change in the route change should contact MCT directly, Morrison said.
People should “absolutely not” call City Hall with suggestions, he said.
“The nice thing about MCT, unlike a train or light rail, we can be pretty nimble,” Morrison said. “We can move a bus route, if we need to try and serve an area where there is greater demand or take service away from an area that we don’t seem to be getting ridership. It’s really nice to have that flexibility. That allows us to be more responsive.”