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.

That's also apparently the view of some white riders. Irwin recalls how hundreds of whites who attended Fair St. Louis during last year's July 4 celebration lined up at the Laclede's Landing MetroLink station to board westbound trains, refusing to board nearby buses.

"People will wait in line to get on a train when in fact we've got buses that are going to the exact same spot and they just don't want to do it," says Irwin. "We've got buses to take you to North Hanley or wherever you want to go. It's like pulling teeth to get people to do it. We told one guy who was waiting there for a train, 'Look, you will be home and those children will be in bed, if you take the bus, by the time you take the train.' Finally his wife got him to get on the bus. It's psychological thing."


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.

Irwin is in his fourth year at the wheel of Bi-State. No one ever said he was a transit guy. Word has it he was County Executive Buzz Westfall's pick. He was a political operative, having come from Boston to work in Mayor Vince Schoemehl's administration and then for Westfall before ending up as the executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission. When he was picked, the thinking was that Bi-State needed more funding, not some policy wonk to redraw its bus routes and give PowerPoint presentations.

Irwin has succeeded in getting more money from St. Louis County, an additional $6 million last year, but his lobbying efforts in Jefferson City have come up empty. Gov. Bob Holden's transportation bill at one point included about $70 million for mass transit throughout the state, with about half of that destined for Bi-State -- each year. Despite Holden's backing of that bill, the General Assembly didn't even vote on it. Bi-State, as in most years, will get about 2 percent of its budget from the state for the next fiscal year. Irwin says he is tired of being "blind Bartimaeus with his tin cup," begging for money, "to keep this thin veneer of service.

"Local people, both city and county, are paying an awful lot of money for public transit," Irwin says. "We're one of the few major urban mass-transit system that gets virtually nothing from the state. Last year, we were at $145 million; we got $3.9 million. Pittsburgh is a system our size; they get about $120 million from the state of Pennsylvania. I'm not that greedy."

So cuts, including as many as to 200 layoffs, must be made. Cuts will also be made in service, because 97 percent of the budget lies in operation of the transit system, Irwin says: "It's easy to blame this big Politburo down on Laclede's Landing as being terribly inefficient and this horrible mass of people who don't know what they're doing, but I think all it does is obfuscate the real issue -- the real issue is, there's never been enough money to do this." Even legendary New York City master planner Robert Moses couldn't do better, Irwin volunteers. "You give him the same budget constraints and I don't think he's going to do anything a hell of a lot different than I've been able to do," he says. "That's the issue."

Irwin's current pitch is that Bi-State can craft a smaller but better system for less money.

"Maybe there is a small blessing here," says Irwin. "What we're going have to do is talk to the political leadership about biting the bullet on some of these inefficient routes, and if we have good ridership on a particular route, we ought to have better headways and we ought to have more buses so even if the system is smaller, it should be better for the people we're serving. That cuts into the bifurcation of the community. Then you have somebody sitting out there saying, 'I can understand that my bus out here isn't terribly well patronized and that bus in the city is, but why should I pay for that?' That's the ultimate juggling act we end up doing here all the time."

The Grand and Big Bend buses present a stark contrast. The Grand route is the system's most efficient, costing Bi-State about 15 cents per passenger. It almost breaks even. There are times when the Grand bus passes bus stops with people waiting because there is no room on the bus. The Big Bend bus costs the system about $5.12 per passenger. Often it's a ghost bus, except for the operator. By cutting service on empty runs -- what some call "policy routes," because they are kept to make political operatives happy -- service on busy routes might be increased.

"You can't make an argument you should have less service on Grand Avenue. Chippewa's the same way. We need to put more buses out there," says Irwin. "Those buses are relatively efficient. Those lines almost break even. We're OK there -- we shouldn't do the opposite."

As Irwin and his new director of planning, Todd Plesko, try to decide what changes need to be made, Irwin also says he's willing to discuss issues with McGrath. Bi-State's head honcho, who met with McGrath last week, has been aware of the journal for a long time. In view of the volume of McGrath's musings, Irwin is asking for an executive summary.

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