The Transit Industry Needs Structural Reform

Another transit agency is having financial problems. The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District is seeing ridership decline and both transit fares and sales tax revenues are falling short of expectations.

BART’s staff has given the board a laundry list of things it can do to make up the shortfall: raise fares, crack down on fare evaders, increase advertising revenue, increase parking fees, charge companies that send buses to pick up employees at BART stations, and automate trains to eliminate drivers. Even if they do all of these things, however, they “will not be able to address the deficit we are facing” without major service cutbacks, BART’s budget director told the board.

Another thing BART could do, but probably won’t, is hire more employees so it won’t have to pay so much overtime. Last November, Transparent California found that a BART janitor whose base pay was $57,000 a year actually earned $270,000 in 2015 with overtime and benefits. To get this, he supposedly worked 114 hours a week, which is more than 16 hours a day, every day of the year. But a local television station tracked this worker and found he was spending several hours a day hiding in a storage closet, while the stations he was supposed to keep clean remained filthy.

At least 49 other BART janitors also earned more than $100,000 in 2015. The reason BART probably won’t do anything about overtime pay is that it tried before and employees went on strike over the issue in 2013.

Before the strike, BART employees received paid overtime after working just 37-1/2 hours a week. Train operators used overtime to increase their pay by an average of 33 percent. Employees also got free pensions and full health care for themselves and their families for $92 a month. As a part of the strike settlement, employees began to pay into their pension funds and pay a little more for health insurance.

However, despite some changes in overtime rules, overtime remains a problem, as Transparency California revealed. In addition, according to BART’s 2016 audit, the agency had $142 million in unfunded pension and health care liabilities; not an insurmountable figure if revenues are growing but a potential crisis if revenues are shrinking.

Meanwhile, last April BART estimated that a $10 billion maintenance backlog was responsible for increased service disruptions. In November, voters agreed to raise property taxes to fund $3.5 billion in rehabilitation work–leaving $6.5 billion still unfunded. Instead of fixing the system, the region is spending $2.5 billion extending BART to San Jose, the first step of a project whose total cost will be more than $6 billion–money that should have gone to rehabilitate the existing lines. If San Jose is lucky, the line will be complete just in time for the first self-driving cars to steal its customers away.

Thanks to the high cost of BART forcing cutbacks in local bus service, Bay Area transit ridership declined from 150 trips per capita in 1982 to 109 trips in 2015. BART has enabled middle-class workers to commute from distant suburbs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties to San Francisco, but has harmed working-class workers whose commutes tended to be shorter because they lived closer to work.

Service cutbacks aren’t going to solve the system’s long-term problem, which is that BART costs more than the region can afford. Major reforms are needed, including more sensible labor rules, a fix-it-first policy before building new infrastructure, and plans to phase-out worn-out rail lines and replace them with buses. Without such major reforms, all Bay Area residents can look forward to is increasing taxes to subsidize mediocre service.

The one part of BART that might be worth keeping is the Transbay Tube between Oakland and San Francisco. Buses could funnel into stations at either end of the tube and trains could shuttle passengers back and forth. Even that will be only temporary if self-driving cars really do relieve traffic congestion on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. In the long run, I doubt that even BART can survive competition from shared, self-driving cars, so any decisions made now should look towards a future of declining ridership.

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3 thoughts on “The Transit Industry Needs Structural Reform

  1. LazyReader

    The ultimate irony when they do open the San Jose line is if the politician who shows up to cut the ribbon arrives by car or driverless car.

  2. paul

    Less than three months after the election, the Bart board has also threatened to reneged on a promise spend to $1.2 billion on capitol projects if a $3.5 billion property tax bond passed. See: http://www.eastbaytimes.com/2017/02/23/editorial-legislature-should-reverse-barts-deceit-of-voters/ or use Google search terms “state should end state deceit of voters”.

    The state should require BART to spend the money on backlogged maintenance or withdraw the money.

  3. JOHN1000

    Employees committing criminal fraud in plain sight and it is accepted as business as usual?
    And the fraudsters will get huge lifetime pensions based upon fraudulent wages.

    Indict several employees and fire anyone who had any part in this. And all pensions should be forfeited. Otherwise BART and the rest of us have no future.

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