Something Has to Give

Bi-State prepares to cut suburban routes that, by all logic, should have been packed

Aug 15, 2001 at 4:00 am
By ending 22 weekday routes, most of them serving St. Louis County, Bi-State appears to be biting the suburban hand that feeds the beleaguered bus system. Would that the maligned transit system had done it sooner.

The activist group ACORN and other assorted defenders of the transit system may not see Bi-State's major reconstructive surgery as a good thing -- and if you have to walk farther or wait longer for a bus, it isn't -- but nine of the routes being cut are express routes connecting downtown to such far-flung outposts as Lemay, Manchester, Ellisville and Kirkwood. They're being dropped because hardly anybody bothered to ride them.

One particularly justifiable cut is the execution of the St. Charles Limited, a route that served urban refugees across the wide Missouri by busing them to the North Hanley MetroLink Station. No longer. St. Charles County voters nixed a tax that would have helped fund a light-rail extension to their fair environs; now that Bi-State is $7 million in the hole, with no savior in sight, the agency quite rightly is telling St. Charlesians to find their own way to the nearest MetroLink stop.

The suburban routes are where the waste is. The most expensive route for Bi-State, as calculated on the basis of per-passenger subsidy, is Clayton-Oakville rush-hour route. It averages 31 passengers a day, at a per-passenger deficit of $22.15. At that rate, Bi-State could afford to pay a monthly note for a new car for each rider. Contrast that with the Beijing-like numbers put up by the Grand Avenue bus, which averages 11,043 passengers per day and a 15-cent-per-rider deficit. Clearly the population density and the need for public transit in the city are far greater than in the county, though a look at the frequent 2-mile backup of cars on I-270 waiting to get on westbound I-70 might be evidence that in suburbia, something more than a larger concrete cloverleaf is needed. But they'll figure that out eventually.

The details of the cutbacks will be announced by the end of this month and will go into effect in October. A letter to Bi-State employees -- signed by Tom Irwin, Bi-State's head honcho, and Herb Dill, president of Division 788 of the Amalgamated Transit Union -- went out last week. The situation is clear: More than 200 people, mostly bus drivers, will lose their jobs; about half are part-time drivers.

One of those to be laid off is Mike McGrath, the journal-keeping part-time bus driver who attracted Irwin's ear and Dill's scorn [D.J. Wilson, "The Transit Authority," RFT, July 4]. McGrath's mania for metaphors has not diminished. He writes about Bi-State's being like the frog sitting in cold water, not noticing that the water is heating up until it's boiling and he's cooked. So the "incremental drawing-out of Bi-State" to service more distant destinations has expanded the cost to the transit system and thereby depleted its resources, making it less able to provide transit to those who most need it. "This needed to be done," says McGrath of the route changes. "The whole system has been predicated on downtown St. Louis as a hub, and it is no longer that hub. But Bi-State is about 20 years behind the curve reacting to that."

The point of contention appears to be the idea that bus operators sell $3 all-day bus passes, which are intended to take the place of transfers. The unchallenged use of expired transfers has cost Bi-State money. Dill says his union comrades won't sell the passes because it would mean handling cash and risking more assaults. "We recognize that the job is a dangerous job and accept that, but to add something else and give somebody an incentive is stupid," Dill says. "I don't want to give somebody a reason to get on the bus and want to stick me up."

Dill says there were 28 assaults on bus drivers last year. In June, a Bi-State driver in Centreville, Ill., was pistol-whipped when he couldn't open the fare box during a robbery. The driver still hasn't returned to work. Dill wants the day passes sold elsewhere and hints that he'll advise his members not to cooperate if management pushes the idea.

"I'm not going to put the riding public and the bus operator in harm's way for selling a pass," Dill says. "What it would come down to is, we would still drive the bus; we're just not selling no passes. If they want to call that a strike or a job action or whatever, [they can], but we're not going to sell no passes. There's nothing that I can see that they could do to convince me that we need to sell passes."

Irwin thinks there might be a way that fare boxes could be used to dispense passes, possibly for exact change, and he's willing to talk. And he's willing to listen, even to the ACORN protesters, but there's an air of resignation in his voice. "I've tried to talk to those folks. I am tremendously empathetic and sympathetic with them. I don't want to do this. I really don't. I wish there were another alternative," Irwin says. "But in order to keep this system, it requires a certain amount of money. Something has to give somewhere."

Dill says he understands the frustration and anger that many have with Bi-State. "It would be hard to say we got to this point because Bi-State was the best-managed company in the Midwest," says Dill, though he blames Irwin's predecessor, Jack Leary, and much of Leary's management staff who stayed behind. "Once Bi-State spends all the money, they can't create their own funds. We can't operate the system through the fare box. So if you want more money and you're mad about the cuts, get mad at the people who can give you the money," Dill says. "The solution is something regional, but everyone you talk to says, 'We ain't got the money.'"