AC Transit considers drastic weekend service cuts
on September 8, 2010
The weekends may soon be less relaxing, at least for those who ride the bus. AC Transit, the transit district serving Oakland and surrounding areas in the East Bay, could reduce its weekend bus service by half, and make several additional cutbacks, if the district does not quickly resolve a dispute with its employees’ union.
AC Transit is facing a $17.6 million budget shortfall this year, due primarily to its failure to implement a new labor contract that would have helped to balance the district’s books. The cuts currently being considered are only the most recent for AC Transit in what is proving to be a difficult year for public transportation across the state. In March the district reduced service by 8 percent, and had planned to scale back another 7 percent in August, until court intervention over the current labor dispute suspended that action.
When the Amalgamated Transit Union’s (ATU) previous labor contract expired this June, AC Transit offered the union a more frugal contract that would have saved the district $15.7 million per year by modifying the rules governing overtime pay, health insurance co-pays and pensions, but would have left base wages unaffected. ATU Local 192—which represents AC Transit’s drivers and mechanics and comprises more than 75 percent of the district’s workforce—responded by filing a motion with the Alameda County Superior Court to keep the previous contract in place until a mutually satisfactory agreement could be reached. The court sided with the union and issued an injunction in early August.
Citing a lack of other options, on September 1 AC Transit’s board of directors announced the possibility of significant cuts in service. In addition to discontinuing Saturday and Sunday service for 39 of the 56 bus lines currently running on weekends, the district is considering eliminating all but two of its overnight lines, contracting out its paratransit service for disabled passengers, reducing service hours for all lines, and eliminating its least-used lines altogether. Because fewer lines require fewer drivers and service workers, AC Transit has indicated that these cuts would be followed by a round of layoffs.
Although representatives of AC Transit and Local 192 are now meeting with a court-appointed arbitrator to resolve their dispute, the outcome of those talks is still unclear. “We hope that the arbitration will result in some cost savings,” said AC Transit spokesperson Adam Alberti, “but at this point we have to assume a reduced budget moving forward.”
Riders’ reactions to the possibility of cuts have varied. On Sunday Christina Jones, who was traveling to Oakland with her daughter Ivory from their home in Concord, said she has had to adapt to service cuts before. “There used to be a bus directly from Oakland to Hayward,” where she works, she said. Now that line has been discontinued, so she takes BART. But her old bus route meant “less angst,” she said. “It was cheaper, and it was a straight shot. That’s what was good about it.”
Riding a not-so-crowded bus on the 51A line into downtown Oakland this weekend, Grand Lake resident Sarah Haynes was not thrilled by the prospect of service cuts. Though she can take BART to her job in San Francisco, AC Transit gets her to the grocery store, and to her boyfriend’s house in Rockridge. If the cuts are implemented, she said, “I wouldn’t really have a choice” but to ride the lines still running.
Millsmont resident Taymyr Bryant, a UC Berkeley student who takes the bus “everywhere,” was not convinced cuts are necessary. “Maybe there should be lower corporate salaries” at AC Transit, she said. “Or higher taxes. If anything, they should be adding buses—not taking them away from people who depend on them.”
Claudia Hudson, Local 192’s president and chief negotiator, offered similar thoughts. While AC Transit has listed, in a strongly worded press release, the other cost-saving measures the district has taken in order to minimize service cuts—including administrative staff cuts and raised fares—Hudson says that “not one administrative person has seen one wage reduction,” while union members’ wages are by default a subject of negotiation.
Although the looming cuts lend them a sudden urgency, AC Transit’s budget woes are not new. The district is on track to reach a $56 million deficit over the course of its biennial budget from 2009 to 2011. The new labor contract put forward this summer would not have completely erased this discrepancy, but it “would have gone a long way to address the deficit,” said Beverly Greene, another AC Transit spokesperson.
AC Transit’s current financial troubles are linked to those of California. The district’s operating budget is funded largely by the state and local governments, as well as by revenue raised directly through fares. (It also receives federal funding, but this generally goes to capital projects rather than day-to-day operations). Lately “a lot of sources of revenue are down,” Greene said, including property and sales taxes. AC Transit’s budget has dropped with them.
Despite the district’s problems, Greene says bus ridership has recently been on the rise. While service cuts may be necessary, AC Transit nonetheless runs the risk of compounding its problems by depriving itself of fare revenue from discontinued lines, laying off more workers and alienating customers. Elmwood resident Lawrence Rhone, for one, is already frustrated that he has to transfer from the 51B line to the 51A in the middle of what used to be a continuous route. If the lines he uses are disrupted any further, he says he’s ready to give up on buses altogether. If AC Transit goes through with these cuts, Rhone says he’ll “probably just start taking a lot more cabs and BART.”
But not all of AC Transit’s customers have other options, and as the contract dispute stretches on, service stands only to decline. Until some change in schedules or wages is made to reflect AC Transit’s actual budget, Alberti said, each week of service under the current contract increases the district’s deficit by another $300,000. “The timing of this is critical,” AC Transit’s Alberti said. “The longer we operate under these conditions, the greater the cost to the district.”
AC Transit’s board of directors is expected to decide what cuts, if any, will be made when they reconvene on September 22. Any cuts will likely be implemented in December.
For now, the district will continue to follow its full weekend schedule, and union drivers will be behind every steering wheel. In spite of their differences, AC Transit’s Greene and Local 192’s Hudson used the exact same words to describe what to each of them mattered most: “putting service on the street.”
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