The Transit Authority

Bi-State is losing riders and money. Mike McGrath, who has driven a bus for more than a year, thinks he knows what's wrong.

"It's almost like Adam Smith's invisible hand," says McGrath. "It's time for evolution to step in and devolve so that we can evolve. Take a few steps back. Let's feel a little bit of the suffering, a little bit of the pinch. Let everybody -- our funding partners as well as our workers -- see that there has to be a reality check."

Although a cash shortfall may be the trigger that sets off change, the problems with the region's mass-transit system go deeper than dollars and cents. If there is a recurring theme to McGrath's missives, it's that funding isn't the main problem at Bi-State. Sure, more money would help. Replacement buses are needed, new transfer centers would improve service, a marketing campaign would help, outreach efforts to immigrants would make sense -- but some routes do need to be cut. Politics needs to take a back seat to service. Management needs to be more in touch with street-level problems. Training for drivers needs to be upgraded. A sense of professionalism and a emphasis on customer service has to be indoctrinated into the workforce. Operator schedules need to be rethought to eliminate the need for massive amounts of overtime that has resulted in some veteran drivers' earning $80,000 per year. Resistance to these changes has to be overcome.

Predictably, these messages aren't always well received. Like the medieval monk Savonarola, McGrath is pushing for reform, and, as in 14th-century Florence, those in charge in St. Louis aren't happy with uncomfortable news. Savonarola ended up being burned at the stake. McGrath has been threatened, ridiculed and ignored, but he has also gained an audience, both inside and outside of Bi-State.

Tom Irwin has asked McGrath to summarize his findings and offer recommendations: "The harshest critics are usually the critics from within," says Irwin, now in his fourth year as Bi-State's executive director.
Tom Irwin has asked McGrath to summarize his findings and offer recommendations: "The harshest critics are usually the critics from within," says Irwin, now in his fourth year as Bi-State's executive director.
Herb Dill, president of Division 788 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, doesn't think much of McGrath's take on Bi-State: "He doesn't have the slightest idea what this system is."
Jennifer Silverberg
Herb Dill, president of Division 788 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, doesn't think much of McGrath's take on Bi-State: "He doesn't have the slightest idea what this system is."


Once McGrath started his journal, word about it spread. He e-mailed it to management officials on the Landing who he thought might be interested. The entries, which arrived almost daily, ranged from 1,000-3,000 words. After about a year, McGrath started using a digital camera so he could include images with the journal -- shots of damaged buses, stranded passengers, buses running red lights, buses with few if any passengers.

It wasn't long before McGrath got on people's nerves. He was an equal-opportunity offender. At first, management may have thought that by having someone chronicle the inefficiencies and shortcomings of mechanics and drivers, the heat would be focused on the garages and the street. But by spending his mornings in the front office, McGrath witnessed the lack of communication between managers; behind the wheel, he saw how little management knew about the day-to-day reality of the system's 108 routes.

One of his entries included a reference to a specific supervisor at the Brentwood Garage, where McGrath reports to work. That employee became so rattled that McGrath ended up getting a threatening letter from the law firm of Greenberg and Pleban. In that letter, Michael J. Schaller wrote, "demand is hereby made that you immediately cease disseminating written materials and making oral comments" about the supervisor "that are based on innuendo and conclusion rather than objective fact." Schaller warned that "legal options" would be pursued against McGrath if he continued. Schaller added that he "cannot understand how anyone could find your disjointed harangue credible" and that the journal's accusations that his client was part of a "Bi-State management afflicted with 'systemic dishonesty' are insulting, defamatory, libelous and potentially injurious."

Another warning came from Herb Dill, president of Division 788 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, after McGrath wrote about a mechanic he found sleeping on his bus when he started his route.

"Herb was doing his best John L. Lewis impersonation when I reported a mechanic sleeping on my bus," McGrath says. "It scared the hell out of me, but I found out that it's not unusual. He said, 'We don't rat on our fellow rank and file; you're one of the brothers.' He said, 'I tried my best to keep you out of here. I'll get you out of here. I may be the only friend you'll ever have here. These guys are going to hurt you if you keep doing that.'" McGrath was unfazed. He saw Dill's warning as more grist for his mill. "That was cute," he recalls, "something for the journal again."

Dill denies that the conversation was meant as a threat to stop McGrath from keeping the journal and says he only met with McGrath to remind him "that as a union member he is pledged not to do anything that would harm another member." Dill says he opposed hiring McGrath as a driver: "I have listened to his harebrained schemes even before he came to Bi-State. He doesn't have the slightest idea what this system is."

McGrath concedes that not all Bi-State employees think well of him. When it became known that McGrath routinely picks up riders during his "pull-out," the distance between the garage and the start of the route, some drivers were irritated or baffled. Picking passengers up during the pull-out requires telling them how far the bus is going, because the distance may not include the full route they need. After McGrath did this on several occasions, one bus driver began greeting him at the garage with "Oh, there goes Mr. Goody Two Shoes." McGrath said that eventually he made a joke of it, laughing when he saw the driver but describes such instances as examples of Bi-State's "culture of futility and carelessness."

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