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.

Ralph Kramden never went to college, much less graduate school. The beleaguered bus driver played by Jackie Gleason in the vintage sitcom The Honeymooners didn't need a master's degree in astronomy to threaten to send his wife Alice "to the moon."

Nobody listened much to Ralph, a prototypical blue-collar, lunchbucket guy whom no one took seriously, not even Alice. And despite his time spent as a bus operator, Brooklyn-based Ralph never talked like a transportation consultant, wanting to advise New York City's Robert Moses on how to deal with the "binary nature" of the metropolis, how to counteract the bus system's "culture of disrepair" or what "new paradigms" were needed to solve mass-transit woes. For Ralph, "paradigms" were two coins with FDR's face on 'em.

In real life, too, seldom does anyone pay attention to a bus driver, unless it has to do with how much to put in the fare box, or where to get off to catch a connecting bus, or that no, you can't eat that hamburger on this bus. And because this is St. Louis and not Chicago or Boston or New York City, most people don't use public transit, so they may not even remember the last time they rode a bus, much less spoke with the driver.

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.
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."
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."

Mike McGrath drives a Bi-State bus, but he is no Ralph Kramden. Not even close. McGrath has four graduate degrees, covering public policy, American studies, theology and divinity. He is an ordained priest, but he's been "on leave" since 1994. This fall, he is planning to pursue a doctorate in public policy with an emphasis in transportation. When he talks about mass transit, he uses such terms as "paradigm," "distance decay," "trip generators" and "connectivity."

For the last 18 months, McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, though he has never had any cover, has never attempted to hide his dual role. In the mornings, the 56-year-old McGrath has worked as a graduate-student intern in Bi-State's administrative offices on Laclede's Landing. On a few occasions, he has done paid consultant work for Bi-State management, crunching numbers and analyzing routes. On weekday afternoons and Saturdays, McGrath is a part-time operator, driving Bi-State buses.

At night, when he returns to his Richmond Heights home, he bangs away on his computer, compiling a journal of his bus-driving experiences. To say he keeps a journal is like saying Mike Shannon follows baseball. McGrath actually wore out a computer keyboard, breaking the f, v, g and c keys and causing some unfortunate typos. Take his April 29 entry, in which McGrath chronicled engine trouble on the Lindell bus: "The most troublesome problem is that this bus has a dynamic braking feature called an engine retard. When it down shits it wants to die...." McGrath bought a new keyboard.

Printed out, the compiled journal entries are more than 3,000 pages long. When it comes to the length of his remembrances, McGrath is the Marcel Proust of public transit, but his opus is hardly Remembrance of Routes Driven.It's not classic, or even bestseller, material. McGrath knows this, but that wasn't his ambition. He describes himself as an ethnographer -- an anthropologist who observes specific cultures up close and writes about them descriptively. The journal reads like a very, very long research study by a sociology professor.

Academic though it may be, McGrath's journal couldn't come at a better -- or worse -- time for the Bi-State Development Agency.

From the end of 1999 to the fourth quarter of 2000, as virtually every other major city saw increases in public-transit use, Bi-State lost more than a million riders, going from 37.6 million passenger trips to 36.1 million. For the current fiscal year, which began Sunday, July 1, Bi-State was projecting a $7 million shortfall. This isn't the first time Bi-State has coped with money problems, but this time the agency appears to have run out of rabbits to pull from its hat. In one maneuver last year, MetroLink light-rail cars were sold to a Japanese firm and leased back, creating a temporary financial advantage. But all those tricks appear to be played out.

The official party line is that layoffs and service cutbacks are the only way out of the red. Those proposals have triggered predictable responses: Transit riders and their political representatives worry about the cutting of routes; drivers with low seniority fret about their job status. And yet two of the people who've studied Bi-State closely see opportunity in the midst of calamity. Though McGrath and Bi-State executive director Tom Irwin occupy opposite ends of the organizational chart -- McGrath is technically a part-time bus operator, Irwin Bi-State's top executive -- they use similar phrases to describe the fiscal crisis. McGrath calls it a "backdoor blessing"; Irwin calls it a "small blessing." They both believe that the urgent nature of the situation may help trigger a drastic but necessary revamping of Bi-State.

"We owe it to the riding public to secure as much funding as we can, but there is also something right below the horizon of our consciousness that says, 'You know, it may not be the worst thing in the world if they don't get funded,'" says McGrath, who thinks that for years Bi-State put off what it needed to do because the agency believed a bailout was just around the corner.

"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.


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."

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.'"

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.

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."

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.

McGrath harps on customer service, calling the bus stop the "point of purchase." He refers to Bi-State's "secret service" -- riders don't know much about routes and sometimes can't even find where to stand to catch a bus. Schedules often aren't available on buses, and even bus stops with signs are seldom marked with the routes that stop there.

"If you pull out of Providence Place subdivision on Meramec Bottom, if you saw a bus-stop sign you might give it a thought sometime when you put $1.74 a gallon in your tank -- 'I think I'll try that bus,'" says McGrath. "But if you don't even see a sign there, you don't even think there's an option."

One of the reasons McGrath announces cross streets and connecting bus lines is that it helps riders who don't read so well and alerts others of their options. After he told people on his Lindell run that the Kingshighway bus goes all the way to the Hampton loop, one elderly lady thanked him, saying that now she knew she could shop at the Schnucks at Hampton and Gravois.

Service at the street level is what wins and keeps customers, according to McGrath, and the lack of that service is what is draining Bi-State of its ridership and its revenues. Riders aren't treated like customers. In his journal, McGrath cites at least six special events during which no signs were posted for riders to tell them there would be deviations of service, often leaving them stranded, waiting for a bus that wouldn't come.

The confusion over the rerouting of buses for the St. Patrick's Day road race and parade downtown highlighted not only poor planning by middle management but also the racial divide that exists at Bi-State. One African-American rider who had been unaware of the changes boarded McGrath's bus and said, "This company bends over backwards for those Irish white folks and lets us go to hell." Of course, in his journal, the academic in McGrath used the incident to cite a reference to Parish Boundaries, John T. McGreevy's book on the historic tensions between the Irish and black communities, dating back to the 1840s with the Irish Potato Famine migration.

In explaining the loss of ridership, Irwin cites race. It would be hard to argue, in a town so racially troubled, that race isn't a factor in why more people don't ride the bus. "Part of the image of Bi-State, quite frankly, has to do with race," says Irwin. "There is racism, it's true."

McGrath agrees that race is a factor, but he believes class trumps race -- and rundown equipment drags down morale.

"I argue in the journal that if we had not lost a million riders who had already committed to the system, you might be able to fashion a stronger argument that it's race," says McGrath. "But those million people who were riding the system and stopped riding it didn't do it because Bi-State was heavily minority; they did it because it was a low-class, degraded situation. They felt degraded and were treated in a degraded manner. That's my argument. So I use the mantra of class not only in a socioeconomic paradigm but also class in a more a colloquial paradigm, like, 'Show some class, will you?'

"Most of the operators are minorities serving a largely minority group. They want to have a sense of pride. Conversely, if they can't show a sense of pride, they get defensive," says McGrath, "because we're in such an adversarial relationship, apologizing for being late, apologizing for a bus that's not air-conditioned or heated, for something that looks so ratty. Bi-State is such a target, there is a tension point within the culture that works against the kinds of rewards that you would normally get from seeing the same customers every day, that you know you're responsible for their work trip, getting them there on time."

The siege mentality of many operators extends to their personal safety. An ongoing topic in McGrath's journal is the use by riders of expired transfers, a practice that costs Bi-State big bucks. Years ago, transfers were color-coded, and it was easy to spot a fraud. But now it depends on what's printed on the transfers and how they are punched, so drivers must check more closely. Many bus operators don't bother because they want to avoid confrontations.

McGrath recalls that a bus driver he likes and admires once told him he had stopped challenging riders using bad transfers. "He told me, 'I did it one time and I got a knife drawn on me. I'll never do it again. If it's expired, I don't care.' That's his response. I understand that," says McGrath. "He has a wife, he has a family; this is his livelihood."

Another sore subject with bus operators is the perceived preference by Bi-State for MetroLink. McGrath notes in one of his journal entries an incident on the Chippewa bus during which a rider referred to MetroLink as meant mainly for whites. In another entry, a dispatcher asked a bus operator over the radio to wait for passengers from a MetroLink train. In response, the bus driver asked whether the train would have done the same for the bus. The implication was clear: MetroLink is the darling of Bi-State; the buses are stepchildren.

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."


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.

"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."

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.

"In a city where you just have a racial binary, either black and white, you have polarities, you have separation," says McGrath. "When you have multiculturism, you can't get in that binary trap. That enlarges people's view of themselves and their region."

After Todd disembarks at the Fenton park-and-ride lot, McGrath pulls back onto I-44 to return to the Brentwood garage.

"My real heart is in the humanities. That's why I enjoy the culture dynamics and how that plays out in urban theory," McGrath says. "Being a long-term transportation planner is not so much my goal as using public transportation as a way of rebuilding the cities, as a way to make cities more livable. That's really my viewing lens on this. That's why I would argue against wasting resources when you desperately need transportation resources to the South Side, to the new ethnic communities that have enriched the city and that have emancipated us from our binary of black and white, north and south. Now we've got black, Hispanic, Asian, Bosnians. We have a wonderful culture. To hold that together, public transportation has to be the glue; otherwise, they'll head out to their widespread sprawling outer-ring, inner-ring suburbs and the city will continue to erode. That's really where my passion leads me to urban transportation, because I know that's the lifeblood of the city."

Listening to McGrath as he drives the bus, as he talks about the fundamental value of public transit, it's clear that he is sincere and knows what he's talking about, both on the theoretical and the where-the-rubber-meets-the-road level. He also knows that passion for a subject and a working knowledge of it does not guarantee a livelihood. Despite his 18 months spent driving a bus, his hours at the keyboard and his days in the front office, McGrath has no illusions that his journal will be accepted as a management manifesto that will resurrect Bi-State. He laughs that it might just end up being "the fart heard 'round the world, to use a New England metaphor." He'll wait and see how the changes shake out to see whether he's destined to return to academia.

In the end, McGrath sees himself as more of a Lone Ranger than a Ralph Kramden.

"The fact is, quite candidly, I hope I'm one of those laid off," says McGrath. "That would be the perfect scenario, if you follow what I'm thinking: I do this, and I wind up being laid off because of the very problems I was observing and commenting on -- the decline in ridership and service. That would almost be a poetic ride off into the sunset: 'Who was that masked man?'"

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
 
St. Louis Concert Tickets
Loading...