Specter of a BART Strike Raises Important Questions for Bay Area

BARt_station.jpgFlickr photo: b3nda

Thank goodness the BART strike seems to be averted. I’d wager that you thought a little harder about your commute today, no matter which mode you used.

One of the positives to come of the high drama around the BART strike was the public dialogue it engendered among riders, the media, transit geeks, and transit operators. How were those hundreds of thousands of people going to find a way to work, particularly given that more than 60 percent of BART’s passengers are suburban commuters who use the system to get to and from work, most of them in San Francisco, and there are few other options to get across the Bay from the east?

The number of stories on the strike were legion, though most of them covered little more than the back and forth of the negotiations and included the man-on-the-street interview about how greedy the union was. One thing that wasn’t covered, but which was important to
BART, was the concern that a strike would compel many people away from
the system to their cars or other means of transport, and the fear
those riders might not have readily come back.

"People can
form new habits fast," said BART Director Tom Radulovich. "Our
ridership is already declining, so even a brief work stoppage of a few
days could have accelerated that decline, putting the whole district,
labor and management, into a worse position financially."

also wished the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), or another entity that could coordinate the many transit
operators, had a reserve of buses to use for these types of situations, so that the options weren’t between a strike and horrible traffic. If there were more buses that could be operated while BART was down, then the impetus for a transit-only lane across the Bay Bridge would have been greater.

The MTC argued that it wasn’t in the position to stock a reserve fleet. "It would cost a great deal of money to have a huge reserve capacity and
maintain that huge capacity and the public is not going to put up with
that," said MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler. "They are going to put up with the temporary inconvenience before that."

Although there are many transit operators spanning various modes, like ferries and buses, there is no immediately sufficient replacement for BART’s service. Because of spacial efficiency, a couple hundred thousand drivers compelled to go underground (think MacArthur Maze fire or Loma Prieta) fit a lot better on BART than a couple hundred thousand riders coming above ground to find a seat in crowded buses and ferries, to carpool, or to sit alone in a car in epic traffic.

"One thing about the Bay Area is that we have very linear travel patterns because of our geography," said Rentschler.  Add to that the "confusion of having many operators, and [the Bay Area] suffers from the sense of not being cohesive."

The MTC had been planning contingencies for a BART strike for months, but a labor action, said Renstchler, unlike a natural disaster or a large fire, doesn’t command the same kind of response from the other transit agencies. "My agency doesn’t have the power to reorder the priorities when these things happen to upset regular service.  When you have an earthquake, you can say we have this problem that people understand.  When you have a strike, that isn’t the case."

One of the priorities Rentschler referred to is the very nature of transit operators with county-wide constituencies: operators do run more frequent service on the most-used lines, but they also consider their geographic base, even if that means far-flung buses might run at less-than-full capacity for segments of service. MTA’s farebox recovery hovers around 20 percent, AC Transit’s recovery is below that, and VTA’s is less still.

With so little of each agency’s money coming from the farebox and so much of it coming from taxes, there isn’t a direct incentive to cut redundancy for efficiency, except when the overall budgetary picture is as bleak as it is now. Even then, without a mechanism for making smarter cuts, like the MTA’s Transit Effectiveness Project, there is no guarantee that efficiency will be improved by shrinking funds.

"There is a societal obsession with efficiency," added Rentschler. "But efficiency and redundancy don’t always go hand in hand."

  • Glad to see people realize the Union for what it is. In this harsh economic time everyone is cutting corners, but even mention some give from a Union and they scream high heaven. It’s reassuring that the Union has to win public approval too before they can just go around manhandling transit, and the people they serve.

    Glad overall though, that the situation is settled (supposedly) and that nobody had to give up too much. So tomorrow, the Union can be happy that BART doesn’t have to can even MORE people if ridership doesn’t resume appropriately. It’s a hard battle to maintain transit ridership, as pointed out, and the Union striking would have ruined a solid few percentage points, equating millions in fares and such.

    …whew. Glad it’s over.

  • I think what we’ve learned is that public agencies have decided it’s better to demonize the people you rely on to do a good job, and to employ high paid consultants to do so. With a compliant press ready to buy into a meme of “see, they have something you don’t, hate them hate them!” well, the results were predictable. No one of course talks about how the union AND bart management should be on the same side in killing this idiotic non-health care ‘system’ in favor of something less parasitic.

    But that said, it was NOT BART management’s fault Democrats in the Legislature and the Governor looted billions from the agency, culminating in a complete steal of funds from BART. With that kind of hole, there was not a lot of options for BART. For anyone to think they could wave a wand, courtesy of President Dumbledore and make the money come back was fucking stupid.

    In the end, both sides were pushed into corners that allowed for no exit strategy, and both played it out. Ironically, while BART workers and management got the brunt of the heat for all of this, those that were responsible (Democratic legislators and the Governor) got away scot-free.

    This kind of drama will be repeated ad infinitum until people realize who the real enemies are – a corrupt, decadent Legislature and Governor’s office that sees transit as a cash cow to loot for legislative salaries and perks and Gubernatorial gimmes, and a health care industry that is Soviet-like in bureaucracy and inefficency and poor service, and ultra-capitalist in its parasitic greed that loots business and gov’t agencies alike.

    And we’ve also learned that mainstream media like the Chronicle can’t be relied on to report on these things honestly. When you have Matier and Ross telling everyone that Gavin Newsom somehow saved the day behind the scenese (which is PURE BS), well you see why those entites are dying.

  • Anonymous

    Come off it, Greg. We’re talking people who are paid $100k/year to do a job requiring all the skills of a WalMart greeter. As a citizen I want value for my money, and that means workers paid at wages commensurate with their skills.

  • Henry James

    Back to Greg’s comment…..ugh, have you really looked at the union contracts and then asked what it all means? It means this — cost, including labor cost, has increased at twice the rate of inflation for the last 10 years. That’s a fact. And it’s also a fact that the taxpayers of this state, and of this country and of this planet can’t keep up with that. I am not demonizing the unions — they are doing their jobs. Their jobs, and never have any doubt about this, is to extract as much money as possible from management. And they are very good at it. Management’s job it to protect the public’s purse, and their record…well, not so good. This is one of the few times management has stood up to the union and said “not this time.” But, they should be doing that every time. Work rules are a huge issue and they cost real money. Let’s examine a “tiny issue” — can anybody really justify that BART should pay for 15 union people to be doing union business? 15 x $100,000 annually = $1.5 million. BART just got 1.5 percent of its total anticipated savings with that one change (assuing that survived in the final negotiations).

    What’s unfortunate about this is that every time that public employee unions get a windfall contract, it makes the Republicans look correct –that government can’t do anything right. At least this time that argument is countered, but much more needs to be done to assure the taxpayers that their money is spent well and not squandered on unproductive work rules, lavish pensions (that far exceed even the most generous private plans) and employees who are clueless about the honor of being public servants.

  • Jym

    =v= Relentless union-bashing in the corporate media has certainly dominated the blogorantosphere. Gotta keep that race to the bottom going, after all, with the usual cocktail of desperation and fear.

    BART’s main problem is its expensive priorities, which have nothing to do with unions. It was conceived as a system to serve white flight into the suburbs, and has to try to keep up with sprawl. These priorities come from the MTC, who first and foremost pay for highways, roads, and sprawl; then secondly fund the same land-use patterns with BART; then finally lets every other transit agency in the area fight over what’s left over.

    This has been the main problem for decades, but rather than deal with that, it sure is much easier to whine about how some rank-and-file employees have a better dental plan than we do. Also, this one BART station agent was mean that one time, so let’s give ’em all whut-for. That’ll improve things.

  • soylatte

    It is shameful that BART ridership is falling. Shameful. It is everything that is wrong with U.S. policymaking today. By no means is BART perfect, but it is by and large the most convenient and reliable public transit option. How officials on all levels fail to enact policies that would make people take BART is almost criminal. Yeah, let’s give ’em more cash for clunkers though. Our streets and sidewalks are not yet completely filled up with cars. We can cram a few thousand more future clunkers in there.

  • Am I the only one who wanted the strike to happen? How else will people realize how dependent they are on our transit systems? I know BART needs more money, but they need to make a better case for it.


MTC Asks: Are You Prepared If BART Workers Strike Next Week?

Will this resemble your commute on Wednesday, July 1st? Photo: a7an The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) just sent over a press advisory suggesting that Bay Area residents prepare their contingency plans for getting to work starting next Wednesday, July 1st, in case BART workers don’t get the contract they want and go on strike. Such […]

BART Board Candidates Discuss Future of Bay Area Transportation

Yesterday evening, the San Francisco Transit Riders held a “BART Board Director Candidate Forum” at the Mission Pool & Playground Clubhouse in the Mission District. From the SF Transit Riders: We are hosting the forum for the candidates to introduce themselves and respond to SFTR and public questions. This is an important time in BART’s […]

Car-Hail Assists BART Passengers

BART’s woes continued this week, with no train service this morning at the end of the Pittsburgh Bay Point line. That meant bus bridges between Pittsburg Bay Point and North Concord. But some good news came down in the early afternoon from BART’s communications department: BART will run a train every 15 minutes during commute […]

BART Strike Likely To Overwhelm Other Transit Agencies

Click to enlarge: A map of Muni lines that displaced BART commuters can consider taking during a strike. Photo courtesy SFMTA. A BART strike will leave hundreds of thousands of riders in search of an alternate commute on Monday. Since most of the region’s largest transit agencies are already operating near capacity during peak hours, […]