Due to lack of ridership, Madison County Transit will eliminate the No. 14 Highland Shuttle bus.
On July 2, MCT Managing Director Jerry Kane told the Highland City Council that the bus route will be discontinued. The last day of service will be Aug. 10, according to the MCT’s website.
The No. 14 Highland Shuttle operates Monday through Friday from about 8:25 a.m. to 6:23 p.m. The bus runs between 10 major stops in town, including Faith Countryside Homes, Main and Mulberry streets, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Highland High School, Walmart, Highland Home, the Highland Area Christian Services food pantry, Suppiger Apartments and the Northtown Shopping Center.
SJ Morrison, MCT’s director of marketing and planning, said the shuttle route was originally brought to Highland in 2015.
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“And it’s just never performed at a level that really warrants having the vehicle there all day,” Morrison said.
Morrison said that MCT’s Board of Trustees officially approved the decision in May, after holding hearings and receiving feedback from the public. Ultimately, he said it was the route’s lack of ridership that caused the discontinuance.
“We are literally carrying like 7 to 11 people a day,” Morrison said.
In comparison, Morrison said that most of their other routes carry hundreds of people a day.
“To just carry less than 10 (people) on most days is very poor performance,” Morrison said.
In his presentation, Kane relayed that it could cost the city about $100,000 to operate the shuttle service. However, after the meeting, Kane could not be reached for comment.
Morrison said that MCT tried many tactics to increase ridership, including adding destinations to the route, and coordinating with the city and other local organizations to promote the route.
“Nothing seemed to make a difference. We just never saw the growth,” Morrison said.
However, while the No. 14 Highland Shuttle will be no more, Morrison said that MCT will continue to provide it’s other services to the Highland area, including express routes to St. Louis and across the county. He said that, in the future, if indicators tell that there is demand for another Highland line, MCT might consider bringing the route back.
“I think that, if demand grew in the future, we would certainly take a look at it,” Morrison said.
A ride on the bus
A News Leader reporter took a ride on the Highland Shuttle during the 1:10 p.m. route on July 5.
The shuttle driver Chris Walker said that normally his rides are quiet and relaxed, with ridership numbers ranging from one to seven riders, depending on the day. But, while there may not be many riders, he said all of the shuttle patrons have one thing in common.
“They all need it. Everybody that rides the bus needs the bus,” he said.
During the 80-minute lap around town, three people rode the bus. Two were already on the bus when the reporter got on at Walmart. One of these riders was Cindy Giger, who was accompanying her daughter to visit her father at the hospital.
Geiger said that she hopes an alternative mode of transportation can be created once the shuttle is discontinued.
“It would just be so valuable to the city of Highland,” Giger said.
Giger said she rides the bus almost everyday because she cannot drive due to a vision impairment that qualifies her as legally blind.
Out of the many uses she gets from the shuttle, which include going to the bank and grocery shopping, one of the main trips she takes is from the Suppiger Apartments to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Giger makes this ride with her daughter, so that they my visit her father, who has a critical and chronic health condition.
“We really appreciate this bus service. It enables us to be able to do that,” Giger said.
Giger said that when she loses the bus route she will either have to depend on her friends for rides or walk wherever she needs to go. However, Giger said that she would rather not be a burden on her friends, and her handicap makes it extremely difficult for her to walk about, especially if she has to cross busy roads or intersections.
“I don’t know what I would do,” she said.
The third rider was also a shuttle frequenter. Kathy Chaney said she rides the bus everyday, as she does not have a car. Like her counterparts, Chaney also said she uses the bus for running errands, and entertainment purposes. Without the bus, she said that she would feel trapped at home, a thought she does not like to contemplate.
“I feel like I need to get air, like I can breathe,” Chaney said.
During a bus stop, the News Leader reporter was also able to speak with a man named Dave, who wished to only be referred to by his first name. Though he did not ride that day, Dave said that he rides the bus almost every day due to his own handicap; he is wheelchair bound.
On top of his errands, Dave said that he uses the bus to get to his entertainment, or he just rides it when he has nothing else to do.
“It keeps me sane,” he said.
Chaney, Giger and Dave attended the council meeting to share their opinions with the council and the representatives from MCT.
On top of relaying how they believed the bus benefits them and the community, the riders asked that if the bus was ultimately canceled that the city implement a shuttle service to help them and others.
“I really do feel like the City Council is sympathetic to and wants us to be as independent as we can be. So I am hopeful that the city will pursue getting an alternative bus system for us,” Giger said.
Even after the shuttle is canceled, there will still be a few services that eligible patrons might be able to use.
St. Joseph’s Hospital provides free patient transportation with its Friends Van. The service encompasses towns in a 20-mile radius of Highland, but only shuttles to and from Highland appointments. Those eligible for the Friends Van are those who can no longer drive, are in a temporarily restricted medical condition, have a vehicle under service or usually have a family member take them who is not available. Medical, pharmacy and dental appointments usually take priority with the van, though some personal requests can also be fulfilled by requesting an appointment.
The van runs Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.Those who wish to make an appointment with the Friends Van can call 618-651-2788, it is recommended to call at least two days before the appointment.
Another option similar to the Friends Vans the ACT Runabout Paratransit Service, which is provided by Madison County Transit. However, to use the ACT Runabout, a rider must be a Madison County resident and either have a verified disability or be 65 years of age or older.
Also, unlike the Friends Van, Runabout rides have a charge, which can range anywhere from $3 to $10, depending on who is riding the bus and where they are going. To find out if you are eligible for the Runabout bus, visit the MCT website or call (618) 931-7433.
But, even with the the Friends Van and ACT Runabout, City Manager Mark Latham said there will be an “under-served” population in Highland who do not own a mode of transportation and do not qualify for any other transportation services in town.
“There’s a gap, I guess you would say,” Latham said.
During the council meeting, Kane, the MCT director, proposed an option that could provide an alternative to fill that gap.
“All of a sudden, out of the blue, MCT indicated that they would give us a vehicle if that is what we wanted,” said Latham.
But, even with gift of the bus, Latham estimated that with driver salary and benefits, alongside fuel and insurance costs, it would still cost the city the same $100,000 it was costing MCT.
“You’re talking about some major dollars that they put out to run those things,” Latham said.
Latham did not think Highland ridership fees could ever make a shuttle self-sufficient. And, any money the city would spend would be on top of what it already pays MCT.
MCT is partially funded by a countywide, quarter-cent sales tax, to which Latham estimated that Highland contributes somewhere between $500,000 to $700,000 each year. The money helps pay for other MCT services in the Highland area, which include the 14X Highland Express, which travels to and from St. Louis, the 13X Highland to SIUE Express, weekly shuttles from Highland to The Muny in Forest Park for Friday night performances, and the Runabout.
Latham said that he will be working with city staff to explore the options for an alternative shuttle service. But whether or not an alternative service will be possible, what it will look like, or when more information will be available is not known at this time.
“But we’ll see,” he said.