ST. LOUIS (AP) — Ridership on St. Louis' public transit is plummeting as the light-rail system moves toward its first expansion in more than a decade.
The city's MetroLink and buses have seen a 20 percent drop in passengers over the last five years, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Metro Transit has been assessing how to reverse the trend as local officials pursue a new $667 million north-south line.
Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro Transit's executive director, said the decrease is split evenly between the light-rail and bus systems and due to factors including serious crime, a stagnant population and the low cost of driving to work in the area.
"We're not growing," she said. "That separates us from a lot of other regions with enough population growth to cushion this blow."
Riders have also become frustrated with panhandlers, smokers, fare evaders and disruptive passengers, she said.
Resident Karen Bretz, 50, was bothered by the stench of urine and few passengers being checked for valid fares at her MetroLink station, but she put up with it because she appreciated the convenience and low cost. Bretz stopped riding after Craig LeFebvre, a St. Louis County Health Department employee, was killed by a stray bullet in August near a MetroLink station.
"He was doing the same thing I did every day — going home from work on the MetroLink. And that was too scary," Bretz said.
The St. Louis County Council withheld $5 million from Metro Transit this fall until it sees that rider safety concerns have been addressed and that the public transportation operators are working with police.
The St. Louis County, St. Clair County and the city's police agencies patrol the trains alongside Metro public safety officers and security officers.
Mefford-Miller wants to stop the exodus of passengers and eventually increase ridership by ensuring police and security are visible on trains and interacting with riders. She also aims to strengthen Metro Transit's relationship with police.
The relationships "have been somewhat strained and highly politicized," she said. "We're getting back to basics."