ST. LOUIS — Annette Nowakowski has been using Call-A-Ride since she moved to St. Louis more than a decade ago.
Nowakowski is blind. Metro Transit’s Call-A-Ride, a curb-to-curb service for people with disabilities, allowed her to get to her job, go to church or meet friends for dinner. She rarely had trouble making a reservation, even when she called in the morning for a lift she needed that same evening.
That reliability has evaporated.
Metro Transit has been been hit hard by labor shortages over the past three years. In response, the agency trimmed its service area in April, excluding parts of southwest and far north St. Louis County. Trip denials have decreased 50% since then. And a $5,000 hiring bonus offered since July has quadrupled its typical number of driver trainees, inching it toward a complete slate of workers.
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But the progress hasn’t gone far or fast enough, critics say. Long wait times, inconsistent scheduling and a lack of transparency from Metro, they argue, has severed a lifeline for people unable to navigate bus or light rail.
“It’s like Call-A-Ride is the stepchild of the fixed route,” said Nowakowski.
Now, three days’ notice is almost always required to arrange a ride, even though compliance with federal Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines calls for day-ahead scheduling. Regular riders complain of inconveniences that make it difficult to plan their lives, budget their money and, sometimes, feel safe. Blaming those problems on a lack of employees is an incomplete story, they say.
Etefia Umana of the Central West End takes Call-A-Ride to and from his gym, but the drop-off and pickup times are so variable that he sometimes has to stretch his workouts over several hours or cram them into 30 minutes.
One day last month, Wilma Chestnut-House of St. John was supposed to be picked up after her sewing class in Bellefontaine Neighbors at 4:30 p.m. The van showed up at 5:30, a half-hour after the building had closed.
It took two hours for James Verde of south St. Louis to get to his chiropractor recently, a 20-minute drive by car. Verde, who deals with a host of complicated medical conditions, was exhausted by the time he arrived for his appointment. But alternatives such as Ubers or taxis quickly add up when you’re getting by on disability income, he said. Sometimes it’s easier to stay home.
“I’m just tired,” said Verde. “I’m trapped.”
‘Not just a Metro problem’
Metro concedes that when it was fully staffed, the shared-transport system could accommodate more riders, and with less advance notice. Scheduling used to be more streamlined, too, with trip requests clustered at the beginning and end of the workday and to more centralized locations, like downtown.
That changed with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Habits shifted, and the labor crisis strained Metro Transit in every direction….