Sometimes in public life, the best politician for the job may not be a politician. That, at least, is the gamble that St. Louis-area public transit is taking with Larry Salci.

Back in February, the Bi-State Development Agency, which runs regional bus and light-rail services on both the Illinois and Missouri sides of the Mississippi River, hired as its director an executive with a reputation for rescuing companies in distress. Later this month, Salci faces a key test in his efforts to restore Bi-State's relevance to area commuters. Missouri voters will weigh in on a $483 million gas- and sales-tax increase earmarked for transportation. Should the measure pass, most of the money will go to highways, but about $22 million is slotted for the transit agency. It would be the first time the Show Me State has put any significant public funding into mass transit.

It would also be a badly needed shot in the arm for Bi-State. Last year, the agency was forced to cut about $10 million in services, which meant taking a significant slice out of its bus routes. Those cuts have cost the agency more than 10 percent of its ridership, a loss that Salci calls "devastating." The problem, he says, is that "because Bi-State has gone through numerous cuts over the years, we've reached what I call the 'veneer' level of service in some parts, where the frequency and level of service are such that we're no longer valuable as a transit service."

Bi-State actually needs more than double the funds that the transportation referendum would bring it, but the money would at least allow the agency to restore the lost bus service and, over the next few years, to build and operate a light-rail extension that has been in the works for years. Salci believes that the extension, which will pass through some of the most heavily populated sections of suburban St. Louis County, would in turn produce enough of a political constituency for light rail that Bi-State could go back to voters in the city and county for a 1/4 cent sales-tax increase that they rejected a few years ago; that money would be enough to keep the system afloat and able to expand.

"For an area its size, St. Louis has a transit system that's maybe half what's needed," says Les Sterman, executive director of the East- West Gateway Coordinating Council. "The spatial mismatch between housing and jobs has gotten much greater, and the gap hasn't been filled by public transportation."

The challenge for Salci, of course, is that unless Bi-State can deliver the new rail line and keep its operations on track, it won't be able to build the public support it needs to expand. Bi-State has a history of problems delivering capital projects: It received funding in 1995 for a new parking garage at the most popular station on the metro line, for instance, but has yet to build it, while the final conceptual plan for the rail-line extension was delivered three years ago, but no ground has yet been broken. In addition, the agency has come under fire for poor service and equipment quality. "What Bi-State needs at this point," says one observer familiar with its operations, "is a turnaround artist."

That's where Salci comes in. Now 55, he got his start in public transportation 26 years ago, when he left the Chrysler Corp. to run the Detroit area's transit agency. That job lasted five years, and ever since, he has worked for private rail-car manufacturers. Among other jobs, he spent the latter half of the 1990s heading up the rail- car manufacturing spinoff of the troubled Morrison-Knudsen Co. The result, he says, is that dealing with large, troubled organizations "is almost second-nature to me now." He has already reorganized and trimmed Bi-State's management, and restructured its operations and maintenance divisions. "In the private sector, my job was to maximize shareholder value," he says. "That's my job here, to maximize the value to our taxpayers, who are the shareholders of Bi-State. They are not going to want to put equity infusions into Bi-State unless we can demonstrate that we're a good steward of those investments."