Metro Messy

Transit chief Larry Salci knows he has his critics. Ask him if he cares.

Larry Salci steps onto MetroLink's Emerson Park platform in East St. Louis and pats the silk handkerchief in his chest pocket. With his shimmering navy-blue suit, bulky gold ring and auburn mane, the six-foot-two Salci stands out in any crowd. But here on the edge of this dilapidated neighborhood, he's a stranger in a strange land.

Salci, Metro's chief executive officer and president, has agreed to ride MetroLink this sweltering June morning. When Adella Jones, Metro's vice president of government and community relations, told Salci a reporter wanted to take the train with him, he replied, "Now why do I have to do that for?"

Salci's critics accuse him of being inaccessible and, at times, downright testy with people who question him. Jones, a savvy handler whose previous employers include former U.S. Congressman Dick Gephardt, might have Metro's toughest job: getting Salci to show his face to elected officials and citizens a bit more often, at more than just monthly Metro board meetings.

Jennifer Silverberg

Work rarely grinds to a halt at MetroLink's Forest Park station, the terminus for the $676 million light-rail extension.
Jennifer Silverberg
Work rarely grinds to a halt at MetroLink's Forest Park station, the terminus for the $676 million light-rail extension.

In Jones' presence, Salci congratulates himself for hiring her last year and thanks her for keeping his sharp tongue in check.

"Adella knows I'm a pussycat," he says.

The feline routine comes off flawlessly when, as Salci sets his briefcase on the platform, a short, African-American gentleman clad in stained work clothes approaches.

"You must be an attorney," the man teases, leaning toward Salci.

Salci crosses his arms. "Been called a lot of things," he replies, "but not a lawyer."

"How 'bout this," the man goes on. "How 'bout a Republican businessman?"

"Not a Republican either. You're 0 for 2."

"But you are in management, right?"

"I am in management. That's one out of three. Hit 33 percent and you can lead the American League in batting," Salci answers cheerily.

His interrogator lets out a laugh. "You're a crook! What businessman isn't?"

Salci stops smiling. "I wouldn't agree with you, but you're entitled to your opinion, sir."

The exchange could end here, but Salci takes note of the man's navy baseball cap and ribs: "You're not a Yankees fan, are you, living in St. Louis?"

"It's just a hat," the man mumbles.

Larry Salci has turned many heads in his three and a half years at Metro's helm. The cash-strapped outfit, formerly known as the Bi-State Development Agency, had long been run by local politicos lacking extensive transit or managerial experience.

When the director's position opened in 2001, the board of commissioners cast its line for a strong manager to streamline operations. They believed they found their magic bullet in Salci, who applied on January 3, 2002, and signed a $170,000 contract less than two weeks later.

"Larry hadn't had much public-sector experience," notes a former board member. "But he dazzled us."

Most commissioners considered Salci's private-sector past and non-St. Louis heritage assets. An outsider, they reasoned, might have better luck overhauling the beleaguered agency. Today, Metro still has no long-term financing plan to speak of, but Salci has proven himself an intrepid decision maker.

In August 2004, in a move transit officials call unprecedented, he fired and sued the Cross County Collaborative, a group of four firms charged with designing the 8.2-mile MetroLink extension that will connect Forest Park and Shrewsbury by way of Clayton. The CCC countersued Metro three months later.

Then, earlier this year, Salci raised eyebrows by recommending that Metro refuse an audit requested by state auditor Claire McCaskill. Salci said it would jeopardize the agency's lawsuit. Salci lost the skirmish, and Missouri auditors are expected this week to begin a year-long financial audit to determine why cost overruns on the $550 million MetroLink project might total $126 million. The completion date for the new line was scheduled for May but has been pushed back to the fall of 2006.

Just last week, Salci went even further by amending Metro's lawsuit against the CCC -- for the third time -- by alleging a prima facie tort, a claim similar to libel. The lawsuit now claims CCC representatives have made harassing statements to political figures and the media, including the Riverfront Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, causing the agency to suffer "a loss of credibility, damages to its reputation and damages to its business relationships."

Underscoring those controversial moves is what those who work closely with Salci call his "abrasive" leadership style.

Aware of the criticism, Salci addresses it this way:

"[Someone has] a problem and thinks they have to take five minutes warming me up to tell me the problem. I don't need the build-up. Think about it before you come in here, and tell me what the issue is. Then tell me what you're going to do about it. Don't try to transfer it to my back, 'cause if you're one of my managers, I expect you to have [the solution] figured out before you come in. And if you haven't got it figured out, tell me, because that's what I'm here for: to say, 'Let's put our heads together, and we'll figure it out.'"

Later, he adds: "I'm not into this 'glass half-full of water' stuff. If it's a liter bottle, it's either 0.4 liters or 0.6. It ain't half-full or half-empty. It's 0.4 or 0.6. There's no gray area. That's me, OK? That's Larry Salci in a nutshell."

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