Tag: public transit

Labor Unions Against the Public Interest

The folly of monopoly unionism (“collective bargaining”) in government is most evident when labor unions strike. Hundreds of thousands of San Francisco area residents are currently having their lives disrupted by union actions against the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. BART’s unions want higher wages:

The unions, which represent nearly 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff, want a 5 percent raise each year over the next three years. BART said train operators and station agents in the unions average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually.

Bloomberg says that BART workers receive annual benefits averaging $50,800, so these folks are well-paid. It is true that every worker in America would like higher pay. The difference is that most of us don’t have special government-created powers to cause city-wide damage when we ask for a raise.

Most Americans compete in the marketplace, which limits their power and encourages the provision of low-cost, high-quality services. But most government services are enforced monopolies, which breed inefficiency. Monopoly unions compound the inefficiencies, and lead to the sort of selfish, anti-consumer behavior this strike represents. By the way, the same thing happened to BART in 1997 “when a six-day shutdown jammed freeways and saddled workers with lengthier commutes.” 

Strikes are not the only problem caused by unions in government. Unions push up operating costs and generally reduce service quality. A Washington Post editor yesterday discussed union problems in D.C.’s Metro system after a conversation with the system’s manager, Richard Sarles:

If I had my druthers,’ [Sarles] said, he would hire station managers based on ‘the ability to operate in a customer-friendly way.’ But, Sarles said, Metro’s collective bargaining agreement requires him to promote bus drivers to train operators and station managers. In fact, his spokesman said, mediocre bus drivers may get promoted more quickly because ‘we need to get you from behind the wheel.’ And if someone does a great job as station manager, ‘I can’t recognize that financially,’ Sarles said. 

So here’s the “manager” of a government agency who doesn’t even have the authority to manage his own workforce. It is ironic that Metro and BART are called “public services,” but managers of private businesses are better able to actually serve the public. 

Here’s another curious thing: liberals and environmentalists are eager to get Americans out of their cars and into mass transit, but their left-of-center friends—the unions—work against those goals. Unions push up the costs of transit and reduce service quality, which encourages people to stay in their cars. Furthermore, cars won’t go on strike against commuters like government workers will. 

About the current strike, BART spokesman Rick Rice said: “About 400,000 commuters use BART every day in the San Francisco Bay area … The public doesn’t deserve to be punished.” He’s right, but citizens are being punished everyday in cities across the nation because of the misguided idea of union-dominated, government-run transit. 

You may be interested to know that before the 1960s, most urban rail and bus transit in America was provided by the private sector. So we certainly don’t need labor unions in mass transit—and we may not even need the government. 

Further reading:

LaHood’s Legacy

Best known for admitting to the National Press Club that the Obama administration wants to “coerce people out of their cars,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has announced his plans to leave office as soon as a replacement can be found. Aside from an admirable emphasis on transportation safety, the main legacy he leaves behind is a record of wild spending on ridiculous projects that do little to improve transportation but do much to add to the nation’s debt.

Much of that spending came out of the 2009 stimulus bill. Prior to the stimulus bill, a Bush (II) administration rule required that most spending on transit projects meet certain measures of “cost effectiveness.” Streetcars, for example, had to be cost-effective relative to buses, which they never are, so no streetcar projects could be funded. The stimulus money was exempt from these rules, so LaHood immediately gave funds to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Tuscon for new streetcar lines. LaHood then announced that he was rescinding the Bush rule, an action that was formally completed on January 9 of this year.

Similarly, at the request of the Obama administration, the stimulus bill included $8 billion for so-called high-speed rail projects. But most of the projects funded are anything but high speed. Vermont, for example, spent $52 million speeding up a New York-to-Burlington train to an average of 38 miles per hour. Washington State is spending $590 million speeding up a Portland-to-Seattle train from an average of 53.4 to 56.1 miles per hour.

The main criteria for elibility for these funds was not whether a project was worthwhile but whether the environmental documentation had been written. Florida, for example, had written an environmental impact statement for high-speed rail that concluded that the environmental costs exceeded the benefits, but LaHood was happy to give the state $2.4 billion to build it anyway until the state had second thoughts.

As a result, cities and states all over the country are scrambling to write environmental impact statements for all sorts of inane projects so they will be ready the next time the floodgates of federal spending open. Reconnecting America, a pro-transit group, has cataloged more than 600 transit plans under way in more than 100 metro areas. These include 125 streetcar projects in at least 50 cities which may now be eligible for funding now that the Bush cost-effectiveness requirement has been eliminated.

Altogether, the nearly 500 projects for which costs have been estimated would require more than $250 billion in capital expenditures, which rail advocates lament mean that it would take more than 100 years of federal funding at the current rate to fund them all.

Denver Fools the Wall Street Journal

“Denver rethinks the modern commuter,” heralds the Wall Street Journal. The article goes on to say that, instead of building parking lots at its rail stations, Denver is encouraging developers to build high-density, mixed-use developments. Somehow, this is supposed to be news.

Let’s think this through. First of all, no one is “rethinking the modern commuter.” The Census Bureau reports that transit carried less than 5 percent of Denver-area commuters in 2010, while more than 85 percent drove. Instead, what RTD, Denver’s transit agency, is rethinking is the role of public transit.

The old-style public transit system used cheap, flexible buses whose routes could be altered overnight to take people from where they were to where they wanted to go. When Denver first built rail, it substituted expensive but glamorous trains for inexpensive buses, but still allowed people to go from where they were–provided they were willing to drive to a park-and-ride station–to where they wanted to go–provided they wanted to go downtown.

Under RTD’s latest “rethink,” transit will no longer take people from where they are to where they want to go. Instead, planners will try to coerce and entice people to live in places served by rail transit and go where those rail lines go. On one hand, this is far more intrusive on people’s lifestyles; on the other hand, it is a far more limited view of the purpose of transit. Instead of “mobility for those who can’t or don’t want to drive,” the new purpose is “mobility for those who are willing to completely rebuild their lifestyles around transit.”

This has been tried before, of course, most notably in Portland. How well did it work there? In 1980, under the old bus-transit model, transit carried 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters to work. By 2010, with seven different rail lines and scores of transit-oriented developments, transit carried just 7.1 percent of the region’s commuters to work.

The sad part is that the Wall Street Journal not only thinks this is newsworthy, but that it is laudable. In fact, it is government at it worst: inefficient, coercive, and unable to learn from past mistakes.

Transit should serve people and not the other way around. It is time to rethink the rethink.

The Myth of the Senior Transit Rider

According to Transportation for America — which is largely a shill for the transit industry — the nation is about to face a new crisis: a shortage of mobility “options” for retiring baby boomers. According to a report published by the group on June 14, “By 2015, more than 15.5 million Americans 65 and older will live in communities where public transportation service is poor or non-existent.”

The appropriate answer to that, of course, is “So what?” Most seniors don’t ride transit. Census data show that more than 12.5 percent of all Americans are over 65, yet data from the American Public Transportation Association show that only 6.7 percent of transit trips are taken by senior citizens. The average American rides transit less than 34 times a year; the average senior citizen less than 18 times a year.

Putting that into perspective, the 2009 National Household Travel Survey says Americans over 65 take an average of 1,168 trips per year, nearly all by automobile. Transit serves only 1.5 percent of those trips. This survey of the travel habits of more than 300,000 people also found that senior citizens travel an average of 8,250 miles a year by car. Transit carries seniors an average of less than 100 miles a year, or about 1.1 percent of the total of transit and auto travel.

Despite this, Transportation for America joins the American Public Transportation Association in using the supposed needs of senior citizens to justify more transit subsidies. They say additional federal subsidies are needed to give seniors “options.”

But think about it. Baby boomers have driven cars for almost their entire lives. Nearly all of them will keep driving until they are physically or mentally unable to do so. At that point, they are probably not going to be capable of walking the quarter mile to the nearest bus stop or the half mile to the nearest rail stop that Transportation for America defines as “transit accessible.”

Those baby boomers who prefer transit over driving can do what everyone else does who prefers one set of services over another: locate to where the services they prefer are the greatest. In the case of transit riders, that generally means dense central cities.

Instead, Transportation for America wants transit agencies to extend frequent bus or rail service to every remote suburb where there might be a few people over 65 — not because those people want to ride transit, but to simply give them “options.” In order to pay for service extensions to suburbs, many transit agencies have reduced transit service in the central cities where most transit riders are actually located. As a result, since 1985, per-capita transit ridership has plummeted in such major urban areas as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.

Congress expects to pass legislation this year that will decide how to spend $40 billion in annual federal gas tax revenues over the next six years. In recent years, 20 percent of those gas taxes have been spent on transit. Transportation for America’s goal is to further increase that share. But after decades of huge transit subsidies, per-capita transit ridership today is no greater than it was in 1970 — mainly because the subsidies have focused on extending transit service to those who don’t need it rather than providing better service to those who do.

Americans will be better off by privatizing transit. Private operators will provide better service to those willing to live in denser, transit-friendly neighborhoods without wasting a lot of money trying to attract a few suburbanites out of their cars.