Transit Wars: Revenge of the Seats

There’s no doubt about it, it’s getting increasingly difficult for poor people, as well as those of us who choose not to drive, to get around the Bay Area these days. Right now AC Transit, Muni and BART are all facing serious budget deficits to the tune of millions of dollars, and with all three services proposing a combination of layoffs, service cuts and fare increases as the solution, it seems that — as is most often the case — the burden of these deficits is going to be put squarely on the backs of those who can afford it the least. As Sylvia Darrensburg — the lead plaintiff in a recently filed lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) — points out, those with the least are public transportation’s most loyal patrons.

The MTC is the board that controls the distribution of funds to the Bay Area’s various transit agencies, which includes the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) rail system connecting the suburbs of the East Bay with the financial district of San Francisco, Muni, San Francisco’s bus system and AC Transit, the bus system for the East Bay. MTC handles billions of dollars a year and has consistently given larger sums of money to commuter rail systems and BART, services for middle class, white commuters whilst providing next to nothing for Muni and particularly AC Transit, which are primarily used by low income, ethnic minority people.

Sylvia Darrensburg is a middle aged African American woman who lives in east Oakland with her three teenage kids.

“My rent is 60% of my income” she told me shortly after we met at the interview spot of her choice, Wendy’s on 25th and Broadway in downtown Oakland.

“So it makes it pretty hard for me to purchase a car right now. I’m stuck in this cycle of poverty, but I’m a Chabot student. I’m trying to break that cycle.”

I met with Sylvia to talk about the lawsuit against the MTC and to get a more personal account of what’s going on with public transit in the Bay Area than I had been getting from the official spokespeople I had been chasing down over the last couple of weeks.

Sylvia talked with me about what had led her to join the lawsuit against the MTC. She said that over the three years she has been taking AC Transit she has noticed a steady decline in service as the fares have continued to go up. She became involved with a transportation justice work group known as Lifeline, a coalition of community agencies and concerned citizens who joined together to find the source of why low income families were not getting the service they needed. What they discovered, Silvia says, is that AC Transit wasn’t the culprit behind this, it was the MTC.

“The MTC has repetitively, consistently delegated money to rail systems that service primarily white middle class well to do clientele and funneled the money away from low income, transit dependent patrons. The thing that prompted me to be a plaintiff in this is for one I have three children. In addition to myself they are dependent to get to school. I spend a minimum of $105 to $150 a month just for AC Transit, that doesn’t include BART, and I do use BART. And now, because AC Transit has a $8 million shortfall they choose to turn to their most vulnerable patrons, me and others like me to make up for it.”

The funny thing is that BART, which is getting the lions share of public transit funding from the MTC at the expense of other agencies, currently has a $53 million deficit. How can that be the case? Well, maybe it’s because like AC Transit, BART does not control its own funding, and while it does get more money than the bus systems from the MTC, most of the money that MTC controls is not going to public transportation at all, but rather to continuous expansion of freeways. This fact makes it clear that the MTC is more concerned with making things easier for auto-oriented suburban commuters than providing reliable and affordable transportation for everyone.

That’s not to say that BART hasn’t played any part in its own budget problems. There are plenty of examples of gross mismanagement. The most ludicrous example I dug up was the $3 million spent several years back on a virtual reality simulator which is used for training future train operators. Is this really necessary? How hard can it be to operate a BART train? I can’t recall one crashing ever. Whatever the reason for their budget deficit, the results are the same. The BART board of directors recently approved raising minimum fare from $1.25 to $1.40 and eliminating 115 positions within the system, mostly station agents. Couldn’t they have gotten rid of the BART police instead?

I spoke with Harold Brown, a member of the amalgamated transit union, local 1555, the union for train operators and station agents shortly before these cuts were passed. At the time the union was in negotiations with BART to prevent them from eliminating those positions. He told me that what these cuts meant was that there will be more vacant toll booths and less people around to help BART riders, especially the elderly and disabled who often need assistance from station agents. When asked why BART has a budget deficit Mr. Brown told me that much of the financial trouble was due to high executive salaries and the frequent hiring of outside consultants to do work that could be left to current employees.

Jim Allison, media relations spokesperson for BART has a somewhat different opinion. He says that the budget deficit is mostly due to the fact that ridership has not bounced back since the dot com bust of the late nineties. He claims that paying for health benefits for employees is also straining the budget. I asked him if BART was considering any other means of balancing the budget besides the constantly recurring layoffs and fare hikes. Seemingly missing the point he told me that there had been talk of introducing parking fees of $1 per day at BART parking lots and reducing discount fares from 70% to 62.5% off regular ticket price. Both these measures have since passed. The only idea Mr. Allison mentioned that didn’t pass on the budget deficit to BART patrons was pursuing revenue through increased sales of advertising space. There is a plan to print advertisements on BART tickets and one to have commercials play on the wall of the trans bay tube, a kind of flip book to be seen by commuters on their way to Embarcadero in San Francisco.

I’ve always thought that if BART had a flat rate and 24 hour service like the New York subway for example, it would bring in a lot more riders. Revenues would go up, traffic congestion would go down and everyone would be happy. I didn’t bother asking about the flat rate because I knew that I would be shot down in flames, but I did ask why BART hadn’t considered offering 24 hour service, which doesn’t seem too far fetched to me. Allison told me that the computer network which operates the BART system — state of the art technology when BART first opened its doors in the 1970′s — is unable to remain in operation 24 hours a day due to its need for continuous maintenance.

It was at about this time that I realized that all of the details had been blinding me from the big issue. Obviously BART will never run 24 hours or have a flat fare. I’d been spending far too much time trying to figure out how to make BART more accessible for everyone who wants to use it, not just the well off business people. It’s clear to me now that BART has no interest in accommodating the rest of us, so instead of trying to make them change their anti-poor policies what we should be doing is seeking a viable alternative. Let their elite rail system rot. If they end up going bankrupt, good!

Back to Wendy’s and Sylvia Darrensburg.

“I don’t know what BART is doing with their money, but one thing I know is that BART has a deficit, yet they’re expanding. AC Transit can’t expand. They’re struggling just to maintain basic operational services. So where’s the money going? They got money to spend, but we don’t even have money to make ends meet. They don’t seem like they’re hurting, but it’s obvious we’re hurting.”

When BART was sold to the voters of Alameda county way back in 1962 it was on the basis that it would provide cheap and efficient transportation for all Bay Area citizens. However, as the Black Panthers correctly predicted in their party paper dated August 12, 1972– when BART was just about to open its doors — BART would not in fact fulfill this promise. In the article “Riding from bad to worse on BART” the Panthers pointed out that the citizens for rapid transit committee, who organized the campaign for BART, referred to in the article as “the forty thieves” included the heads of such big businesses as Bank of America, PG&E, Wells Fargo, Crown-Zellerbach and Kaiser industries. Furthermore they note that before opening its doors BART administrators said that fares would range from 25 cents to $1. Then that fare scheme was later rejected. Surveys were conducted to determine “what the traffic will bear” and the fares were changed to a range of from 30 cents to $1.30.

“With this BART became the first public transportation system in history to raise its fares before it even went into operation” the paper states.

So… it has been established that BART can eat a bag of dicks. Of course, we have seen these fare raises as a continuing trend over the years, not just for BART but for all the local public transit agencies.

I spoke with representatives from both AC Transit and MUNI and asked them if they had considered trying to get funding from big downtown businesses and chain stores. After all, isn’t it them who profit the most from public transportation? In both cases they told me that it was out of their control, which is true…I guess, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Public transit agencies could stand up to big business if they wanted to, and I think that the majority of transit riders would be behind them 100%. Of course, this is never going to happen…unless there’s some kind of coalition formed between the transit systems boards of supervisors and transit riders. The transit system is never going to take the first step on this though, so who is?

At least people like Sylvia Darrensburg are taking a step towards some kind of accountability. I was curious about the big picture still. Is national policy playing a part in our local budget deficits?

“There’s always money, so it’s a national issue of how the whole economic system is put together. Government appropriation of funding. We keep voicing our opinions, we keep getting in their faces. This lawsuit is one of the ways to say, you have to listen. We’re gonna hold you accountable.”

Sylvia made it clear however that if the case was won, that money would not be going into anyone’s personal pockets.

“The whole point is that it’s not money poured into peoples pockets or the representatives pockets, but back into AC Transit so everybody can get the service they need.”

Our talk went well and Sylvia was more that happy to talk at length about the lawsuit, but I still felt there was something missing from the equation. Who is to blame?

When I started researching for this article I was coming from the standpoint that all of the local transit agencies were screwing us, that whilst we were paying ridiculous amounts of money for the privilege of mobility, somewhere there was a bunch of fat cats sitting around a swimming pool, maybe in Vegas, drinking martinis and laughing at all of us suckers paying the best part of $6 just to get to San Francisco and back again. Who are those fat cats? BART? The MTC? Or is it the people they are pandering to? Like Sylvia said, there is always money. But where is it going, and why? There seems to be a never ending supply of money going into these endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there’s always money for suburban sprawl and new roads here at home, but when it comes to public services, whether it’s schools, health care or transportation, we always seem to be fighting over the bread crumbs.

While I get overwhelmed with whom to blame, Sylvia has a clear enemy. “MTC is the culprit. If I was the CEO of a company and then I just took off with the money, I’m accountable. Now, this isn’t a clear cut embezzlement or anything like that, it’s just accountability for appropriating money.”

I asked one last nagging question before we parted ways.

I wonder why it’s in their interests to give more money to one system over another. What are they getting out of it?

“Whatever the reason, whatever the fringe benefit that they’re getting from it, it’s not just, it’s not okay, and we’re not going to tolerate that kind of nepotism or favoritism. It’s called discrimination. They’re not dumb, they’re getting something out of it.”

Somehow I’m reminded of the current situation with Oakland’s public schools. How the state decided that the district wasn’t capable of managing its money and so they replaced the democratically elected head of the school board with that scum sucking pig Randy Ward, who ever since has been closing down public schools and turning them into charter schools with no concern for public interest, and rendering the school board powerless to question his decisions. Could it be that with the MTC giving almost no funding to AC Transit that they’re paving the way for another state takeover of what by all rights should be a public agency? Mere speculation, but the way things are headed it seems that someone has to ask the obvious question.