Jessica Mefford-Miller is Executive Director of Metro Transit, the St. Louis metropolitan region’s public transportation system, where she is responsible for the operations of MetroLink, an 87-vehicle, 46-mile light rail system; MetroBus, a 400-bus fleet serving more than 75 routes in Missouri and Illinois; and Metro Call-A-Ride, a paratransit fleet of 120 lift-equipped vans.
METRO’s Executive Editor Alex Roman spoke to Mefford-Miller about all the projects going on at Metro Transit, including mobility on-demand programs and the testing of battery-electric buses, as well as its continued focus on enhancing the customer experience.
Can you give us a snapshot of St. Louis now?
Right now, we are operating a little under 90% of our pre-pandemic service level and the service looks a little bit different than it did before. We have gone through several service adjustments since late March, including significant reductions in service when we did not have the workforce available to perform our normal service levels. Now, we are doing well with attendance, so we are able to provide a high level of service by refocusing that service where demand is most existent today, which means we are carrying about half or our typical bus customers, 40% of our pre-pandemic light rail customers, and a little over 80% of pre-pandemic paratransit customers. Our fixed-route service is now more focused on our frequently traveled routes where we are maintaining service that looks quite a bit like it did pre-pandemic. We have also added selected trips on routes that are serving major employment centers, so think health care institutions, hospital complexes, shipping facilities, and the like. And we have also done some service substitution where we are no longer operating fixed-route service, and continuing a shift that we began in 2019, to introduce mobility on demand to the St. Louis Community.
Can you talk about how Metro is implementing mobility solutions and monitoring their success?
In fall of 2019, we implemented a major redesign of our fixed-route bus system called ‘Metro Reimagined,’ where we increased our focus on providing frequent service on heavily traveled corridors. We also streamlined some of our routes, minimized deviations, and tried to get those busier routes on 15-minute frequencies, with those supporting community routes on 30-minute frequencies. Now, minimizing those deviations and reallocating that service without adding any operating expense or budget is difficult, but that also meant that some of our lightly traveled neighborhoods no longer had fixed-route services. And so, we supplemented the fixed-route service first by entering into an agreement with Lyft to provide first-mile/last-mile service in select markets throughout our service area. We started with just a few and incrementally kept adding markets to Lyft, and then, when we cut service back this past spring, Lyft was one of the tools we used to provide mobility where there was still demand but not enough to warrant allocation of our scarce fixed resources.
We have been continuing to evolve our on-demand programs. We introduced microtransit this past June with turnkey company Via in two different markets. We recently expanded the program to another market in a suburban area that includes employment centers, where customers were previously traveling quite a distance on a fixed route from the nearest light rail station to access the community. Through that partnership with Via, we overlaid microtransit with our fixed route for some time, and that route experienced quite a bit of service reduction, especially during our lowest post-COVID service levels. Now, we are set to eliminate that fixed-route service and will serve that community entirely with microtransit. The measured approach we are taking has been one to see how the community responds, while evaluating the responsiveness of our vendor to ensure that they are able to achieve the wait times that we specified.
Is Metro planning on continuing to experiment with these types of programs?
Absolutely. We are evaluating the performance of our fixed routes and the needs of each of our different communities to try and find those locations where we think there are efficiencies to be achieved in terms of the cost effectiveness of the service, and whether we can drive down overall travel time — those are the primary goals for our services. This is especially important here in the St. Louis region where we cover about 550 square miles of service area with many different types of communities. We have dense urban markets, lower-density suburban residential environments, and job centers that are increasingly in distant locations. So, we are having to be very creative with our services, where we are trying to find the right threshold to decide where Via could possibly work better, and then reallocate those fixed-route resources to other markets. I think this approach will prove to help stabilize our ridership. Pre-pandemic, in our metro areas, ridership was down for about the last five years. After we implemented that service change in fall of 2019, ridership very quickly stabilized and began to grow. And then of course, March happened, and we began to lose that ridership. But we are staying true to those principles of focusing our resources where they can be more productive, and really trying to match the right type of mobility solution to our many different communities.
Can you talk a little bit about your electric bus initiative and some of the reasons Metro decided to move ahead with a program?
Here in the Midwest, we do not have some of the same mandates that California and some other cities and states have, but we are guided by a few objectives and so we began looking at electric buses. By the way, for about 10 years now we have tested different vehicles and technologies, so we aim to deliver a greener, more environmentally efficient mobility solution for our region. But we also need to drive down our operating expenses. That is a big priority for St. Louis, as it is in many other cities. Most of our buses are traveling about 250 miles in their daily duty cycle, which is large compared to our peers, and we did not want to sacrifice our reliability. While we are very proud of the Metro Transit vehicle fleet’s reliability, our buses right now are traveling about 30,000 miles between failures. That is an industry leading standard, and we want to hold tight to that, so we need a technology that can handle that duty cycle. So, we began working with different vendors and entered into a partnership with GILLIG to deploy one of their new battery-electric vehicles in early 2021. We also have a partnership with New Flyer and have already begun receiving their battery-electric, 60-foot vehicles.
There were multiple facets to the program. Number one, we needed additional capital resources to help offset the expenses of developing the infrastructure, as well as the marginal cost between the purchase price of a diesel versus a battery-electric vehicle. We have won three different No-Low grants that have helped us offset that cost. We also have a partnership with our electric power supplier Ameren Missouri, which has invested $1 million in infrastructure at our first battery-electric operating facility. We also worked with Ameren to develop the infrastructure outside of our facility that is necessary not just to power these first few deliveries of electric buses, but also power a much larger battery-electric fleet. We also actually sold some of our property adjacent to one of our bus garages to Ameren and they have since built a substation on that location, which is going to power the Metro battery-electric fleet at that facility, as well as provide for additional power supply and some redundancy in the communities around us. One of the things we are most excited about is the lower operating costs per mile for battery-electric versus diesel vehicles. So in the long term, and our lifecycle for these vehicles is about 15 years, we anticipate saving about $500,000 per vehicle, which is a great return to the community on their transit investment.
Can you discuss some of your customer service and safety initiatives?
Absolutely. Those programs are all under the umbrella of what I call the rider-centric revolution that we launched when I took on the executive director role back in 2018. The idea is to focus all our operating and capital programs and decision making around the customer experience, so we are doing a great deal of communicating with our customers and stakeholders about their needs and preferences, as well as our performance. The Metro Reimagined service redesign in 2019 was part of that — it was trying to deliver service that would ultimately be faster and more efficient for our customers. We have also created a series of capital programs, which include expansion projects and even maintenance projects.
We also did a major overhaul of our safety and security efforts. We created a team that is really focused on mitigating any potential security or safety threats on the system. We are using our Metro team members to do what we do best and that is being ambassadors of the system and riding our buses and trains with our customers every day. With law enforcement officers in the jurisdictions that we serve, we rolled out a new security approach this past year that is focused more on security, as well as a concierge-type service. We are a more civilian, if you will, security program then we have been in the past. One of the things that our in-house security team have now are body cameras. So, that is one piece of technology that we have adopted alongside our local law enforcement partners to ensure that we are holding ourselves accountable for the service we provide.