By Sam Levin
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Ralph Kramden never went to college, much less graduate school. The beleaguered bus driver played by Jackie Gleason in the vintage sitcom The Honeymooners didn't need a master's degree in astronomy to threaten to send his wife Alice "to the moon."
Nobody listened much to Ralph, a prototypical blue-collar, lunchbucket guy whom no one took seriously, not even Alice. And despite his time spent as a bus operator, Brooklyn-based Ralph never talked like a transportation consultant, wanting to advise New York City's Robert Moses on how to deal with the "binary nature" of the metropolis, how to counteract the bus system's "culture of disrepair" or what "new paradigms" were needed to solve mass-transit woes. For Ralph, "paradigms" were two coins with FDR's face on 'em.
In real life, too, seldom does anyone pay attention to a bus driver, unless it has to do with how much to put in the fare box, or where to get off to catch a connecting bus, or that no, you can't eat that hamburger on this bus. And because this is St. Louis and not Chicago or Boston or New York City, most people don't use public transit, so they may not even remember the last time they rode a bus, much less spoke with the driver.
Mike McGrath drives a Bi-State bus, but he is no Ralph Kramden. Not even close. McGrath has four graduate degrees, covering public policy, American studies, theology and divinity. He is an ordained priest, but he's been "on leave" since 1994. This fall, he is planning to pursue a doctorate in public policy with an emphasis in transportation. When he talks about mass transit, he uses such terms as "paradigm," "distance decay," "trip generators" and "connectivity."
For the last 18 months, McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, though he has never had any cover, has never attempted to hide his dual role. In the mornings, the 56-year-old McGrath has worked as a graduate-student intern in Bi-State's administrative offices on Laclede's Landing. On a few occasions, he has done paid consultant work for Bi-State management, crunching numbers and analyzing routes. On weekday afternoons and Saturdays, McGrath is a part-time operator, driving Bi-State buses.
At night, when he returns to his Richmond Heights home, he bangs away on his computer, compiling a journal of his bus-driving experiences. To say he keeps a journal is like saying Mike Shannon follows baseball. McGrath actually wore out a computer keyboard, breaking the f, v, g and c keys and causing some unfortunate typos. Take his April 29 entry, in which McGrath chronicled engine trouble on the Lindell bus: "The most troublesome problem is that this bus has a dynamic braking feature called an engine retard. When it down shits it wants to die...." McGrath bought a new keyboard.
Printed out, the compiled journal entries are more than 3,000 pages long. When it comes to the length of his remembrances, McGrath is the Marcel Proust of public transit, but his opus is hardly Remembrance of Routes Driven.It's not classic, or even bestseller, material. McGrath knows this, but that wasn't his ambition. He describes himself as an ethnographer -- an anthropologist who observes specific cultures up close and writes about them descriptively. The journal reads like a very, very long research study by a sociology professor.
Academic though it may be, McGrath's journal couldn't come at a better -- or worse -- time for the Bi-State Development Agency.
From the end of 1999 to the fourth quarter of 2000, as virtually every other major city saw increases in public-transit use, Bi-State lost more than a million riders, going from 37.6 million passenger trips to 36.1 million. For the current fiscal year, which began Sunday, July 1, Bi-State was projecting a $7 million shortfall. This isn't the first time Bi-State has coped with money problems, but this time the agency appears to have run out of rabbits to pull from its hat. In one maneuver last year, MetroLink light-rail cars were sold to a Japanese firm and leased back, creating a temporary financial advantage. But all those tricks appear to be played out.
The official party line is that layoffs and service cutbacks are the only way out of the red. Those proposals have triggered predictable responses: Transit riders and their political representatives worry about the cutting of routes; drivers with low seniority fret about their job status. And yet two of the people who've studied Bi-State closely see opportunity in the midst of calamity. Though McGrath and Bi-State executive director Tom Irwin occupy opposite ends of the organizational chart -- McGrath is technically a part-time bus operator, Irwin Bi-State's top executive -- they use similar phrases to describe the fiscal crisis. McGrath calls it a "backdoor blessing"; Irwin calls it a "small blessing." They both believe that the urgent nature of the situation may help trigger a drastic but necessary revamping of Bi-State.
"We owe it to the riding public to secure as much funding as we can, but there is also something right below the horizon of our consciousness that says, 'You know, it may not be the worst thing in the world if they don't get funded,'" says McGrath, who thinks that for years Bi-State put off what it needed to do because the agency believed a bailout was just around the corner.
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