Not in Service

Will the Met Council's proposed solution to a $60-million funding shortfall end bus service as we know it?

Starting at St. Anthony Avenue and Pascal Street in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood, the 76 bus gradually zigzags its way toward downtown. It stops at various high-rise apartment buildings: Ravoux, Wabasha, Redeemer Arms. The dwellings are largely occupied by people who are poor, disabled, elderly, or sometimes all three. The bus also passes numerous retail outlets, such as Cub Foods and Walgreens, where passengers can get vital goods and services. The next-to-last stop on the eastbound route is Region's Hospital, the largest provider of charity medical care in the east metro area.

The highly specialized Metro Transit bus line operates only from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays. Just six buses run in each direction--east or west--daily.

The St. Paul Public Housing Authority operates four high-rise buildings along this route with some 625 units of low-income housing. At least 400 of these residents are elderly or disabled. "Many, many of our residents are transit dependent," says Lyle Schumann, the housing authority's director of resident services. "They don't have an option of calling a cab or jumping in a car to go to a doctor's appointment or pick up their medicines or go grocery shopping."

Protesting bus service cuts and fare hikes, April 6, at the Capitol
Cecile Cloutier
Protesting bus service cuts and fare hikes, April 6, at the Capitol

The 76 line would be eliminated if the Metropolitan Council's plan to close a $60-million budget shortfall goes forward. The bus line's rumored death is nothing new. This would be the third major round of cutbacks to bus service in the metro area in the last four years, and each time the 76 has been slated for elimination. In the past the route has been given a last-minute reprieve after a public outcry.

The Achilles' heel of the 76 line is low ridership. Just 58 people, on average, take the bus each day. By contrast, the 16 bus, which traverses University Avenue and is one of the most popular routes in the city, transports some 14,400 passengers each weekday. "Every time we do route elimination, this route is on the list," notes Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons, "because its ridership is low and its cost is high."

The Met Council suggests that 76 line riders can simply walk a few blocks to University Avenue and hop on the 16 bus, but this isn't a viable option for many of the disabled people who rely on the route. "Without public transportation, individuals that now are able to hold on to their independence are going to be shut-ins, are going to be made more vulnerable, more dependent on other aspects of the public infrastructure," says Schumann. "It's just unbelievably shortsighted and very much disproportionately impacts poor people."

 

The 76 line is certainly not the only casualty of the proposed cuts. The Metropolitan Council proposes reducing or eliminating service on 70 percent of its 153 bus lines. Some 28 routes across the metro area could be cut by the end of the year. Overall bus service will drop by 10 percent. Roughly 50 percent of the cuts are to lines in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the vast majority of transit riders reside, even though the two cities account for just 23 percent of the metro population.

But many suburban routes would be severely affected as well. Gary Connelly, a pension administrator at Minnesota Life, rides the 75D bus from Mendota Heights to downtown St. Paul every weekday. The route is now slated for elimination. Connelly says that he'd be forced to walk 1.2 miles to the bus stop if he wants to continue taking mass transit to work. And with his wife staying home to take care of the couple's young child (with a second on the way), he says they can't afford a second car. Connelly doesn't believe the Met Council's plans make any logical sense. "We can't get anyone to ride the bus so we're going to show them how dependable we are by cutting more lines?" he asks. "It's kind of like a death spiral."

In addition, for the second time in three years, fares will be increased. Starting July 1, most bus riders will pay an additional quarter for each ride. Disabled people who rely on Metro Mobility, which provides customized bus service, will see their fares increase by 50 cents, to $3.50. Monthly passes will jump anywhere from 10 to 19 percent, depending on the type of service utilized.

The Met Council has been holding public meetings--which have seen high turnout--about proposed service cuts and fare hikes over the last week. Residents have until May 1 to submit written comments. The final changes will be voted on by the Met Council by the end of May.

The funding shortfall is in large part due to a dropoff in revenue from motor vehicle sales taxes. In 2001, legislators shifted the primary source of funding for public transit from local property taxes to the vehicle sales tax. With vehicle sales sagging, that source has failed to produce as much revenue as originally projected. In addition, the Met Council blames increases in fuel and health care costs for the money shortfall.

While Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other Republicans have endorsed high-profile transit projects, such as the Northstar commuter train linking Big Lake with downtown Minneapolis, they continue to oversee a dismantling of a bus system that is far and away the most utilized form of public transit in the state. Those big-ticket capital projects could be absorbed into the recently passed bonding bill--and therefore paid for down the road--while the bus system requires an immediate infusion of cash. This means that it bumps up against Pawlenty's vow not to raise taxes.

Public transit advocates argue that the continuous cuts to bus service in recent years are critically undermining the entire system. "Basically, you're running the system into the ground, making it a transit system that doesn't benefit people," says Margaret Donahoe, legislative director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. "The more we keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away, eventually we're not going to have a bus system at all."

In recent years, as bus service has been curtailed, ridership has (not surprisingly) declined significantly. It's difficult to effectively scrutinize the most recent figures because last year's transit strike, which halted buses for 46 days, seriously skewed statistics. But in 2003, Metro Transit buses carried 67.2 million passengers--nearly 10 percent fewer than just three years earlier, when fares reached a peak of 73.5 million.

"We were on a growth spurt there," notes Metro Transit spokesman Gibbons. "The legislature was able to provide more money to regional transit and as a result we were able to grow our ridership. What does this tell us? There's an appetite for public transit among the citizens."

Allen Lovejoy, of St. Paul's planning and economic development department, concurs with this assessment. He says that the city has documented the need for a new route going from downtown St. Paul to the Maplewood Mall, as well as a line providing north-south service on Lexington Parkway. "We could grow ridership and service fairly substantially if we had the resources," he notes.

Adding new lines may be a pipe dream at this point, but there is some hope that the proposed cuts can still be stymied. A consensus has been building across the state that significant dollars need to be pumped into transportation in the coming years if the state is going to avoid severely detrimental economic and social impacts. Even the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, an organization not exactly known for its belief in government largesse, has endorsed a 10-cent increase in the gas tax.

There are currently several different legislative proposals pending that would fill the Metropolitan Council's $60-million shortfall and provide a substantial permanent funding source for transit projects. Most notable is a bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Murphy, a Red Wing Democrat and chair of the transportation committee. His proposal would raise the gas tax by 10 cents and create a new half-cent metro sales tax dedicated to transit projects.

Murphy is adamant that the proposed bus cutbacks will not go forward. "I think it's an abomination to let that happen," he says. "We're going to lose ridership by the hordes. If we're ever going to get a handle on mass transit in Minnesota, we can't let this happen."

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