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.

"Now that he's been doing this for a while, I want him to find out: 'Tell me the five things you see that you think are wrong, and tell me why you think that.' On some occasions he could be right; on some occasions there could be a perfectly valid reason as to why he's wrong about it, because he is not an expert, either," says Irwin. "What I'm trying to cut through is what's the bullshit about just having a bad day and when something doesn't go right to what are you saying that is a serious issue. Tell me what it is, and catalog them for me. I couldn't possibly read these things every single day, but I do read some of them. I try to when I can."

Irwin sees McGrath as someone, to paraphrase Otto von Bismarck, who has been inside the sausage factory.

"The harshest critics are usually the critics from within, because they're looking and staring and seeing, every day, 'What about this?' and 'What about that?' It's tough. But if there are real serious issues with the making of the sausage, I want to know what the hell they are," says Irwin. "That's why I want to talk to him."

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.

Not everyone is interested in what McGrath has to say, particularly union head Dill. "I've been a bus driver for 26 years, and I've forgotten more things than Mr. McGrath will ever learn," says Dill. "Mr. McGrath plays at being a bus driver; we actually do the job. He does more harm than he does good. He's got a lot of politicians listening to him. That doesn't worry me, because in the end most of his stuff will be found out to be nothing more than what it is -- the rantings of someone who purports to be an expert and is not. Just because you may be a transit advocate does not mean you're a transit expert. Mr. McGrath likes to portray himself as an expert, but he is not. He needs to put a few more years under his belt. He likes to talk about years of driving a school bus for a parish as some kind of qualification, but Mr. McGrath is playing at being a bus driver and doesn't have the slightest idea of what the job entails."

But others who either know McGrath or know transit believe Irwin could do worse than listen to the journal keeper.

Jim Gilsinan, dean of St. Louis University's College of Public Service, has had McGrath in several classes. "Mike's a bright guy," says Gilsinan. "He's passionate about transportation, and he's knowledgeable. He's been focused on that as his interest for the last five years or so. He's got the academic and the practical background."

Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, has been on McGrath's e-mail list and has been reading the journal with a critical eye. "People like Mike McGrath do a valuable service by giving us a glimpse into some critical issues that we as planners don't often think about. Even allowing for some exaggeration, I think McGrath's findings should be verified and taken seriously.

"Oftentimes we pay consultants a lot of money to do what he is doing for free, and he might be doing it better. "


After McGrath completes the first run of the Mehlville express, he returns downtown to start the Pacific express. Of the four runs of the Pacific express, the first averages about nine riders, the middle two in the mid-20s and the last run -- the bus McGrath drives -- three or four. On this day, McGrath has three passengers. Two are waiting for a Southampton bus at 18th Street, alongside Union Station. McGrath announces on the bus PA at the stop that he is going to Jefferson, so the two board; otherwise, they will have to wait for another bus.

Once the pair he has picked up at Union Station get off on Jefferson, he has just one passenger left. When McGrath gets on Interstate 44 westbound at Jefferson, the 12-year-old motor coach he's driving is a virtual private limo, taking his lone passenger, Mary Todd, home to Fenton. As she sleeps in her seat, her chauffeur waxes poetic about what public transportation means to him. The bus is running a good 55 mph over the Meramec River bridge, and McGrath is talking about how a well-run transit system could knit St. Louis back together. "I still love the city. I guess maybe that's where my passion in all this is anchored," he says.

One of McGrath's favorite topics is how new immigrants are dependent on public transportation but that Bi-State makes no concerted marketing effort to educate them about using buses and MetroLink. Assimilating immigrants into the urban area and into the transit system would help break down the "binary nature" of St. Louis, he says.

In his journals, McGrath has touched on the binary nature of Bi-State, referring to the racial splits between bus drivers and mechanics, between the Brentwood and DeBaliviere garages and between buses and MetroLink.

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