Drivers on route 87 in St. Paul — the one that runs between Rosedale and Highland Park, with compact buses that appear to have been compressed, accordion style, on either end — will be responsible for two routes once Metro Transit’s latest service cuts and changes begin on Saturday, December 3.
When the No. 87 transitions to hourly service on weekends and between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays, its drivers will do a loop and then jump to route 65 — which runs from Rosedale to Dale Street, ending on Grand Avenue in Crocus Hill. That route also has been trimmed primarily to hourly service.
The driver who explained all this smiled and shrugged, acquiescing to the changes if she wants to keep her job. Later, on my return trip, a driver with gray hair laughed when I asked how the coming schedule cuts would affect him. “I’ll be in Florida,” he declared, clearly headed for retirement.
And more riders will be left outside waiting in the winter cold.
Higher Pay, Fewer Drivers
Six of the 36 bus routes that serve primarily the urban core will be reduced to hourly service for weekend and non-rush-hour trips when Metro Transit enacts its “quarterly service changes” this coming Saturday: That’s almost 17% of city and first-tier suburban routes. Overall, 24 of those 36 routes (numbered from 2 to 94) will be affected, as will many suburban commuter lines.
The ongoing challenge to hire enough drivers has prompted the service cuts, according to Metro Transit officials. Despite a recently boosted starting wage of $26.16 an hour (about $54,400 a year) and a hiring bonus of up to $5,000, Metro Transit is 74 drivers short of the more than 1,000 drivers it needs to fulfill its current schedule, according to Adam Harrington, director of service development.
“We’re trying to manage schedules so we don’t have service that doesn’t show up,” Harrington said. But service delays already have been a problem. Of the 170,000 monthly trips in the current schedule, 1,500 were cancelled unexpectedly during October, due to drivers being sick or unavailable, according to Drew Kerr, communications manager at Metro Transit.
“These are not cuts we want to make. A lot of them are really, really painful — for us and for our drivers,” said Cody Olson, community outreach coordinator for Metro Transit at a recent Transportation Committee meeting of Union Park District Council in St. Paul.
Amid a metro area unemployment rate of less than 2%, Olson urged committee members to talk up the “good benefits, union representation and sign-on bonus, as well as training” available in Metro Transit jobs. “It’s a continuous struggle. We need folks to drive buses and trains.” On the upside: Almost 90 people participated in two hiring events in early November.
Opportunities for Engagement
Move Minnesota, a transit advocacy organization that was born of the 2017 merger of Transit for Livable Communities and St. Paul Smart Trips, is planning a “Boost the Bus” rally at 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 1 to encourage Metro Transit officials to stop the service cuts and improve transit reliability. A phone bank to promote the rally will be held on Tuesday, November 29, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the organization’s headquarters in St. Paul.
Move Minnesota Executive Director Sam Rockwell said he and his colleagues “applaud” the boost in compensation for bus drivers and train operators. But it’s not enough. “We are asking for Metro Transit to use other tools in their toolbox to improve service,” he explained.
These suggested tools include:
- Signal priority, which prompts traffic lights to stay green when a bus is approaching an intersection.
- Shifts in “stop spacing and location,” such as the effort more than two years ago to speed up route 63 in St. Paul by putting more distance between bus stops and relocating those stops to the far side of signalized intersections.
- Lobbying cities and counties for “emergency bus lanes,” said Rockwell, “to speed up buses.”
Citing Chicago, Boston, New York and San Francisco as examples, he said Metro Transit needs to “look at service holistically rather than just a product of how many drivers we have. We are leaving a lot of service improvement tools in the toolbox, and Metro Transit should be putting all of them to use.”
Meantime, the service cuts will affect real people, like the young man I met at a bus stop the other morning who was unaware of the coming changes and doesn’t own a car. He’ll continue to use the bus (“I have to,” he told me), but the cutbacks will affect him.
I do own a car, a 52-miles-per-gallon Prius, which often sits idle both for climate protection and for my health, given the walking that transit use requires. I anticipate it becoming more onerous to bus to medical appointments, workout classes, volunteer shifts at Planned Parenthood and even coffee dates with friends. I imagine greater use of the “trip planner” feature on Metro Transit’s website and a heightened inconvenience that is at the very root of why so many people who can afford to, choose to drive.
Another Option? Ride the Bus
I’ve signed up for the Move Minnesota phone bank and hope to attend the rally on December 1. In some small way, those decisions will make a difference, because the point and power of collective action is for each and all of us to show up.
But public protest is not the only action available if you care about funding and sustaining a stronger transit system. St. Paul City Councilmember Mitra Jalali, a cyclist and transit user herself, was at the Union Park Transportation Committee meeting earlier in November, and she urged that easiest of democratic actions: Contact your elected officials.
“It’s important to start tracking this issue,” said Jalali, who represents the City of Saint Paul on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board. “Get involved with your state representatives and senators this coming legislative session,” when DFL control of the House and Senate could yield more transportation funding. Jalali also urged engagement with Ramsey County commissioners, including board chair Trista MatasCastillo.
Another activist option is simply to ride the bus, and encourage your friends, colleagues and family members to do the same. When event and meeting organizers advertise parking options only, I ask them to publicize transit options, too. When I meet people across the river from my home in St. Paul, I choose locations based on transit access, and I always ask for mobile numbers in case the bus or train is running late.
In a recent episode of “The War on Cars” podcast, Seattle-based advice columnist, former marriage equality activist and committed non-driver Dan Savage told listeners that “the best thing you can do for bike activism is to get on a bike.” That lets drivers see you and learn to share the road. The same logic applies to riding the bus or train. The more people who do it, especially in a car-centric, class-conscious metro area, the more normalized a behavior it will become.
When my husband and I took mass transit to Allianz Field last year for a Keystone Community Services fundraiser, we were the only dressed-up people on the bus. No matter. But we also were apparently the only attendees at the event who had to time their exit in 30-minute intervals so we could catch the 21A back home.
Perhaps that left an impression on our tablemates stuck in traffic as they eased toward Interstate 94, allowing them time to ponder the dissonance of riding in a $40,000 SUV after attending an event to raise money for folks who can’t afford groceries.
How does that saying go? Be the change you want to see.