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.

The irritation displayed by his fellow bus drivers is more understandable than the anxiety from top management, given that McGrath's journal doesn't reveal anything indictable in Bi-State's crisis. There are no suggestions of embezzlement or gross conflict of interests; the problems are more about malaise than malfeasance, more about complacency than criminal activity.

But the extent of excruciating detail that McGrath has recorded over 18 months is hard to dismiss as a string of mere bad-news anecdotes. Drivers who get on their buses in the morning sometimes find, as McGrath did, a sleeping on-duty mechanic. Some drivers don't know their routes and get lost, as did one driver on a recent run of the Eureka express route -- he ended up in House Springs, calling in for directions. Some rush-hour suburban express buses complete long sections of their routes with just one or two passengers on a 49-seat bus. The drivers of some rush-hour buses leave downtown ahead of schedule to avoid picking up riders early in their runs. Other drivers pass passengers at bus stops downtown when other buses are lined up in front of them. According to McGrath, cutbacks in training have produced drivers who are unskilled and more apt to have accidents. There have been other instances, says McGrath, of bus operators' having sex while buses are parked.

To describe just how messed up Bi-State is, from top to bottom, McGrath resorts to his years as a priest, doing family counseling. "Think about a dysfunctional family," he says. "Parents are busting their butts, working two jobs to give their kids everything except for the attention they need and the oversight and supervision that is required for raising kids, so the kids are kind of running wild. They can't understand how the kids can treat them like this, because they're doing everything for them -- which is much of what management does. They can't believe how operators can treat them this way. But there's such a great disconnect. It's sort of like the neighbor coming over and telling the parent the latest thing the kids have done and the parents saying, 'Oh, I don't want to hear it.'"

McGrath is passionate about the city and its transit system: "We have a wonderful culture. To hold that together, public transportation has to be the glue."
Jennifer Silverberg
McGrath is passionate about the city and its transit system: "We have a wonderful culture. To hold that together, public transportation has to be the glue."
Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council: "Even allowing for some exaggeration, I think McGrath's findings should be verified and taken seriously."
Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council: "Even allowing for some exaggeration, I think McGrath's findings should be verified and taken seriously."

In that take, members of management are so concerned with finding funds and keeping a sagging fleet on the road that they don't have a feel for what needs to be done to provide the kind of service that would prevent loss of ridership. The people running Bi-State also are hamstrung by the political entities that provide funding: Many of the routes with the lowest ridership are in St. Louis County, but as the agency relies more and more on funding from the county, it's hard-pressed to drop routes or cut back on runs in areas where much of the funding originates.

If McGrath seems like an unlikely messenger to deliver the news to Bi-State, it's not because he doesn't know the city or can't drive a bus, or that he doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to mass transit. He does, and he's willing to talk about it -- at length.


"Where was I on Nov. 22, 1963? I was on the Chippewa bus. Got on at Grand, and everybody was crying. The bus driver had a radio. When we got to Kingshighway, at 12:33 p.m., they announced, 'The president of the United States died.'"

Almost 38 years later, McGrath is still on the Chippewa bus -- only now, he's behind the wheel, driving the westbound Route 11 on a Saturday morning, using a microphone to call out the next stop and announce the connecting lines. Most Bi-State bus drivers don't do that, but, then, McGrath is not most Bi-State bus drivers.

"Lansdowne, the Lindenwood bus to Meramec College."

McGrath is about four minutes behind schedule. His main destination of the day is Crestwood Plaza, though the route ends beyond that, at the Burger King on Lindbergh Boulevard just south of Watson Road. Chippewa begins in McGrath's old city neighborhood, so the fact that he was riding this route when JFK got popped isn't surprising. "All those memories are compositely arranged in my memory bank," McGrath says. "I saw people crying, sniffling. I went to my seat; my favorite seat was over the right rear wheel well." Although he knew something was wrong, it wasn't until they reached Kingshighway that the bus driver's radio passed the news to those on the bus. McGrath's reminiscence is interrupted: "Jamieson for the Lafayette bus for the Hill district, Shaw's Garden and to downtown.

"He had a radio, and we heard Walter Cronkite on KMOX with that great announcement: 'We have a bulletin from Dallas, presumably official -- at 12:33, the president of the United States died at Parkland Hospital.'"

McGrath's recounting of where he was nearly 38 years ago is typical of his recall of days gone by. Earlier in the route, he spoke of how the corner of Chippewa and Kingshighway, now the focus of a struggle by neighborhood groups to block a Kmart, was a special place during his youth.

"My mother was the Eagle Stamp lady at the Famous-Barr; then she moved upstairs in another office when they got rid of Eagle Stamps," says McGrath, pointing to the vacant northeast corner. "I sold papers on that corner when I was in high school," he says, pointing across Kingshighway to the northwest corner. He remembers getting shakes from the Parkmoor, which was catty-corner across the street. "I worked at the Kroger when they opened that store back there," he says, gesturing behind the bus, back toward Ridgewood Avenue.

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