The Bay Area is the world’s innovation hub, but our transportation system hasn’t kept up. In the decade to 2015, congestion shot up 84 percent and commuters lost an average of 72,100 hours per day. This is hindering productivity and driving businesses to recruit elsewhere. With traffic projected to increase by another 70 percent in the next 20 years, gridlock is fast becoming unlivable. The public is yearning for swift policy action.
Despite Silicon Valley’s breathtaking innovation, BART is one of the most antiquated metro systems in the country. While it has focused its limited capital expenditures on expanding its reach to account for increasing population in farther afield areas, it has neglected its existing infrastructure and failed to modernize. Riders are increasingly frustrated by overcrowded and late trains, a by-product of a system that was designed for the 1970s, when weekly ridership was less than a quarter of today’s.
BART would be better able to keep pace without the burden of out of control labor costs; BART’s unions use their leverage over our transportation system to take the public for a ride. Putting aside a recent overtime scandal, a 2013 compensation dispute had already undermined trust in BART’s ability to responsibly allocate funds. Two strikes during the four-month standoff brought commuters to a standstill. When the dust settled, unions forced a 20 percent increase in pay on taxpayers, amounting to a $93,000 base salary last year. One commuter from Redwood City, John Boitnott, expressed a common sentiment in plain English: “They are getting paid a lot, and people are pissed off.” After one strike, a USA/KPIX-TV poll showed that only 19 percent of respondents, even in a very liberal place like the Bay Area, supported the union’s case. This issue is not a matter of politics; it’s a matter of common sense.
Partially as a result of this dispute, BART employees are the best paid transit workers in California. More worryingly in the long run, though, are BART employees exceptionally generous package of pension and health benefits: most become eligible for retirement benefits after five years of service and 52 years of age. In 2015, 112 BART beneficiaries received pensions in excess of $100,000. Vacation time is also utterly out of step with the private sector; after working for one year at BART, workers can expect five weeks of paid leave. Compensated absences alone constituted a $61 million liability for BART in 2016.
Such spending is unsustainable and undermines BART’s ability to maintain its existing infrastructure, never mind improving it. At $501 million, labor costs will make up 56 percent of operating expenses this year, compared to the 16 percent spent on capital improvements. Per Stanford University economists’ estimates, BART has a staggering $3.1 billion unfunded CalPERS liability. If inaction persists, taxpayers will face an ever-increasing financial burden while a subpar public transportation infrastructure that stymies the Bay Area’s economy and undermines its quality of life will persist.
If approved by the state Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing, Regional Measure 3 will be on the ballot in 2018. It would approve a $1.5 billion bond to raise tolls on seven Bay Area bridges by $1 to $3, which would primarily be allocated towards funding 306 new BART railcars. While the railcars are needed, the public should demand that Measure 3 is modified such that it predicates new spending on reforms that will ensure a reasonable and fair BART pension and healthcare system are in place for future recipients. The public is tired of BART unions using outsize leverage to obtain wages and benefits that are in a different universe from their private sector peers, at the expense of having decrepit infrastructure. This means lower salary increases, much lower caps to overtime hours and higher contribution rates toward all BART retiree benefits. For BART infrastructure to enter the 21st century, the public must be given the chance to vote on the change it deserves.
Tennyson Teece is a member of the Berkeley community.