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Is AC Transit headed toward a death spiral with latest service cuts?

By dcuff
Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 at 11:01 am in Uncategorized.

How dare you cut bus service that riders need to get to jobs, school, doctor’s appointments, social service offices and other places, said Michelle Rousey, an Oakland resident in a wheelchair, to a sober AC Transit board Wednesday night. “It’s not just about the dollar. There are people behind this, ” she said.

Despite pleas like this in a dramatic session, the transit board unanimously voted to slash weekend and late night service in December in what is planned to be the third cut this year. Board members agreed the transit system is headed in a downward spiral and openly expressed worries about where it will end.

“When I was elected to this board four years ago, I didn’t seek office  to do this,” said Board President Rocky Fernandez, who has announced he is not running for reelection after one term.  “I wanted to move toward making cars a last resort.” 

He said he was disgusted at having to approve more service cuts, but defended the move as unavoidable if the transit system is to remain solvent and be able to keep paying its bills. “We have to do something to keep as many buses running as possible.”

 

From the sidelines, AC Transit is looking more like a Greek tragedy in which forces are lining up to push the the plot toward a sad ending. AC Transit is  the third largest public transit system in the Bay Area.

 The poor economy has severely eroded its sales tax revenues. The state Legislature diverted surplus tax funds away from public transit when those tax coffers swelled from rising gas prices. Employee pension and health costs are soaring. Labor talks over cost cutting stalled. The district tried to impose a worker contract to cut overtime and benefit costs, but the Amalgamated Transit Union won court rulings that rescinded the imposed contract, and forced the district to submit the contract to arbitration by an outside third party.

In 2008, the transit board persuaded voters within the AC Transit District to double a parcel fee that the district had touted as a way to avert service cuts. But in the poor economy, that extra money didn’t stretch very far, district officials said.

On Wednesday night, several speakers berated the board for not figuring a way out of the mess without slashing service. 

Leaders of the bus drivers and mechanics union berated the board for not postponing the latest decision on cuts to give more time for union and management negotiators to try and reach a settlement, done under an arbitrator’s guidance,  that would reduce costs.

Others said the board should try harder to shake loose state or federal funds to reduce the district’s deficit. One speaker faulted the board for being too reliant on state funds. Others said the board should work with a new bus riders association to lobby for changes in transit funding. 

Paratransit riders and drivers warned that the van service for the elderly and disabled would deteriorate if the district proceeded with a plan to outsource the dial-a-ride service to private companies. (This was the one cost cutting measure the board postponed a vote on).

Several speakers said the board was effectively denying low-income residents a basic right to transportation. Others said the board was undermining the state’s efforts to reduce global warming gases by not giving more people an option to the auto. 

(One viewpoint not represented Wednesday night was that of fiscal conservatives who assert that a very liberal AC Transit  board got into financial trouble by being slower than many other transit agencies to trim its work force, cut overtime and push seriously for cost cutting concessions in union negotiations. This would not have been a popular view Wednesday night before an audience with many bus drivers. Union leaders, for the record, say the district is trying to unfairly blame the union for the district’s finanncial problems) 

For their part, the transit board members said they looked long and hard for financial relief before deciding they had to enact more cuts that would go into effect in December.

Still, that didn’t sit well with the audience.   

“I see before you a plan for AC Transit’s decline,” said Lindsay Imai of Urban Habitat, a social justice group. “You can’t give up hope.”

 

 

 

 

 

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