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.

When he approaches Brannon Avenue, he points out the four-family flat in which he grew up, at 5027 Chippewa St.

"This is my old stomping grounds here now. My first girlfriend was Betty Lou Wilson -- she lived in that apartment there. We would hang out at the corner and talk. That house right here with the red rail on top, that's where I lived, in the lower right hand." Just west of Brannon, he gestures to his right: "There was a bakery here, too. I worked in there before school, from 5 until 7:30. There's a lot of memories here. I was really a city kid. We moved away in 1974."

McGrath wears a red blazer as he drives. He says it's the standard uniform for a bus operator, meaning that it's the kind of blazer you wear if you want to wear a blazer, but hardly anybody does. One elderly woman laughs as she gets off the bus, telling McGrath, "Oh, we got a driver in a business suit today," to which he replies, "Aren't they all?" When one rider's pass must be swiped twice before it registers, he says, "These machines don't read very well. I think they went to night school and they can't read during the day."

For the last 18 months, Mike McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, working as a bus driver and as a management intern at Bi-State's administrative offices. The experience has given him a street-level view of the troubled agency.
For the last 18 months, Mike McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, working as a bus driver and as a management intern at Bi-State's administrative offices. The experience has given him a street-level view of the troubled agency.
For the last 18 months, Mike McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, working as a bus driver and as a management intern at Bi-State's administrative offices. The experience has given him a street-level view of the troubled agency.
Jennifer Silverberg
For the last 18 months, Mike McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, working as a bus driver and as a management intern at Bi-State's administrative offices. The experience has given him a street-level view of the troubled agency.

But, as on any bus plying its route through the city, everything isn't peachy-keen. On this Saturday-morning ride, a middle-aged woman with red hair sits about halfway to the back of the bus, arguing with a twentyish woman next to her. The bickering is audible throughout the bus, and the younger woman starts to cry, repeating, "I'm tired of it." Then she blurts, "You don't want to be my mother anyway. I don't care."

Next it's time for the pair to get off at Hampton Avenue. As they start out the front door, the younger woman says, "Get off. Get off. I hate you. I hate you."

As the pair disembark, the ever-affable McGrath offers, "Enjoy your day. Bye, now." The two women walk to the corner, where the older woman slaps the other across the face.

The bus doors close, and McGrath pulls away. "The passing parade," he quips. "You see the microcosm of life here." The light turns green, and the Chippewa bus heads west.

"Working this line is a little nostalgic as well as it's a heavy line; it tells me a whole lot," says McGrath as he drives. "It touches a lot of different demographics, so that's why I picked this on Saturday."

On weekday afternoons, McGrath drives two commuter routes: the Mehlville express from downtown to South County Center and then the last run of the Pacific express. The bus he drives for the Mehlville and Pacific runs is a road coach, a vehicle that could easily pass for a Greyhound Bus were it not for its Bi-State markings.

As he heads down Interstate 55, he encapsulates his view of how Bi-State has changed in the last 30 years and what it has to do next in the ongoing budget crunch.

"Here's the paradigm shift," McGrath says. "From a big transit agency, we have evolved from the mid-'80s from 2,000 vehicles to just under 600 vehicles. People who have been there from the '70s and early '80s think of bigger service. They still think of paradigms of bigger service when you have frequency. If you have frequency, you don't need connectivity."

What McGrath means is that if buses or trains run frequently enough -- say, every 10 to 15 minutes -- riders or potential riders won't worry so much about making sure buses and trains connect for a transfer. But with limited resources and a spread-out populace, assuring connectivity for riders is more important. That's why McGrath believes -- and Bi-State executive Irwin agrees -- that transfer centers need to be built. Most other large cities have already built such centers, large open areas where many routes converge and riders can get off and wait in bus shelters for a wide range of other buses.

"Transfer centers guarantee connections," McGrath says. "People can switch buses without having to stand on a street corner in a precarious situation." It also reduces anxiety about missing a connection, because riders know that all buses from a given area eventually go through the transit center.

Irwin agrees, but the transit centers are years away (although one at Ballas and Highway 40, on land previously owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, is in the design stage). Because construction of these centers wouldn't be considered part of the operations budget, Bi-State can pursue funding sources for capital expenditures. To make the system comprehensive, transit centers would have to be placed north, south and west.

"In order to make a restructured service work, you have got to have these transit centers. It won't work without them," Irwin says. "That's the linchpin for a successful transit system, particularly one in as far-flung an area as we have now. That's exactly the kind of amenity you want to provide a customer. It makes that spoke-and-wheel concept work a lot better."

But maybe before dreaming of bus centers, Bi-State needs to concentrate on bus signs. Many are missing -- as many as 25 percent of bus stops in the area don't have signs marking them. Many of the older signs have disappeared because they are aluminum and can be cashed in for recycling. The replacement signs are made of fiberglass, but Irwin's goal last year to replace all the missing signs never was accomplished.

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