By Annie Lloyd
Welcome to the first edition of the Transit Corridor Bulletin!
We here at the People’s Transit Alliance are fighting for green and fare-free transit, good union jobs, and an accessible transit system that prioritizes working-class and transit-reliant riders. Doing anything in life — going to school or work, seeing our families, or accessing healthcare — requires the ability to get from one place to the next in a safe, convenient, equitable, and affordable manner. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, our transit system is far from fair or reliable. From service cuts to lack of PPE, it’s clear the agencies running our buses and trains have not prioritized the needs of transit workers and riders (even though essential workers are most likely still using transit because they are unable to work remotely).
Transit workers and riders understand the severity of these problems — and they are fighting back. In October of last year, transit workers and riders pressured Bay Area agencies to provide PPE on buses. More recently, after poor retrofitting of the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority’s (VTA) bus fleet left operators unprotected and facing a surge of COVID-19 cases, the Voices for Public Transportation coalition organized with the VTA operators union, ATU 265, to demand rear-door boarding on buses. Their work paid off, and VTA restored rear-door boarding on February 8. ATU 192, the union of AC Transit bus operators, took a different approach and advocated for expanded service to ensure social distancing can happen without compromising ridership needs.
These are crucial moments of transit workers and riders coming together to demand safe and reliable public transportation. People’s Transit Alliance, in coalition with labor and organizers in the Bay Area, plans to keep the pressure on, and to build towards a fare-free, clean energy transportation system with service expanded beyond the pre-pandemic norm.
A critical tool in this fight is an understanding of the agencies that fund and plan our transportation system. AC Transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority, and the dozens of other Bay Area agencies rely on abstract bureaucracy, anti-democratic procedures, and a lack of mass public engagement to make decisions that don’t serve working people. We intend to put pressure on these agencies and force them to provide what we know to be our right: a comprehensive, accessible, reliable, equitable, and efficient public transportation system.
The People’s Transit Alliance emerged from Jovanka Beckles’ successful campaign to the AC Transit Board in November 2020, so our coverage will focus primarily on the AC Transit Board and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to start.
AC Transit Board Meetings
AC Transit is a publicly owned and operated transit system. It was created in the wake of the Oakland general strike of 1946 and the ATU Local 192 strike of 1953 against the private Key System. The political demands of these strikes led to state legislation in 1955, which authorized the creation of a public East Bay transit dristrict. AC Transit began running in 1960, a year after voters approved the purchase of the Key System from private corporations (including General Motors).
AC Transit is governed by a democratically elected seven-member board of directors. The board determines all questions of policy for the bus system. This includes setting service levels, routes, and fares, as well as regulating transit facilities. It also includes decisions relating to the jobs needed to maintain and operate transit service. The board makes contract decisions, including decisions about the labor contracts for AC Transit workers, which set their salaries, benefits and conditions of employment. The board also hires and supervises a General Manager, who is in charge of the acquisition, construction, maintenance, and operation of transit facilities (subject to the board’s control).
January 13, 2021
This meeting began with several public comments in support of expanded service and reinstating fare-free rear-door boarding in light of the increase in COVID-19 cases among operators and residents in Alameda County.
The Board of Directors first discussed two uncontroversial agenda items, a preliminary report on AC Transit’s vaccination plan for bus operators, and a letter in support of the federal Freedom to Move Act. The Act, introduced by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Senator Ed Markey, focuses on transit equity and operations, including a grant program for agencies to recoup loss in farebox revenue if they choose to eliminate transit fares. The Board unanimously voted to accept the vaccination plan report and send the letter to local Congresspeople.
Finally, the Board discussed a temporary reduction in Board members’ $1000 monthly stipends to compensate for pandemic-related budget constraints. Directors Beckles and Peeples both expressed their opposition, citing the high cost of living in the Bay Area and the barrier to entry for Board member duties if the compensation is too low. In particular, Beckles argued that “[s]ingle parents, young people without generational wealth, people of color and working-class residents who bring important perspectives to policy and governing are the most likely to be deterred from serving.” The other Board members were sympathetic but considered the economic situation too uncertain to avoid some kind of financial sacrifice, and the Board ultimately voted to maintain the current $1000/month stipend until July 2022, without their usual adjustments for inflation. Directors Peeples and Beckles voted against.
January 27, 2021
This meaning began with several public comments in support of fare-free, rear door boarding as a protection measure against the spread of COVID-19.
The Board’s primary concern during this meeting was the status of the agency’s contract with the Clear Channel advertising company, which installs and maintains bus shelters. As is common practice across agencies in the US, AC Transit does not own nor maintain bus shelters. Instead, bus shelters are often considered “out-of-home” advertising, and are therefore owned and maintained by companies who make billboards, wall-scapes, bus advertisements, etc. Only a small number of companies provide and maintain bus shelters, so there are few competing bids to provide the same service. As the sustainability, cleanliness, and proliferation of bus shelters are crucial for the quality of bus service in a city, the Directors discussed the complicated jurisdictional and monetary considerations around the problem of bus shelters. Director Walsh suggested that staff explore decoupling advertising and shelter maintenance, and several public comments suggested AC Transit bring shelter maintenance in-house. The Directors voted unanimously to receive a report on the current status of the Clear Channel contract.
February 10, 2021
The Board received a budget review in this meeting, which outlined the effect of COVID-19 on AC Transit revenue. There was a $4 million surplus in Fiscal Year 2020-2021 and an earlier report predicted a $19 million deficit in Fiscal Year 2021-2022, which begins on July 1, 2021. The Board expects federal stimulus to fill that gap, and if they receive over $19 million, they will be able to use the extra money to expand service and ensure riders aren’t stranded.
The Board then heard a presentation from staff member Claudia Burgos on the Blue Ribbon Task Force, a project of MTC that is investigating the effect of COVID-19 on transit operations in the Bay Area region. The Task Force raised the possibility of fare integration across agencies, and AC Transit General Manager Michael Hursh brought up that this might result in lost revenue for AC Transit. As this would have implications for labor, he argued additional revenue sources would need to be identified to make up for any loss through fare integration or fare-free transit.
February 24, 2021
This meeting began with public comment emphasizing the need to prioritize transit operators in the vaccination drive.
The Board voted to adopt a resolution in support of Alliance for Girls “Safety on Public Transportation for Girls Campaign.” Director Beckles called for AC Transit to take specific actions, like doing a PR campaign on the buses.
The Board then received a report back on the budget projections for Fiscal Year 2021-2022. The prior deficit forecast was optimistic, and the deficit is now predicted to be around $60 million. This does not take into consideration the amount of stimulus money MTC will eventually allocate to AC Transit. The forecast also relies on service levels remaining at their pandemic level, rather than increasing to pre-pandemic levels.
The next report was an update on MTC’s Fare Integration task force, and many public commenters and board members spoke in favor of Bay Area fare integration. Many riders raised the cost and complications of commuting across multiple agencies, and the inaccessibility and inequity that this creates.
The Board then moved on to hear a report on research into cashless fares and their impact on riders without access to a bank account. According to the report, 26% of fares are currently paid in cash, and 13% of those users would be unable to ride if cash were no longer an option. Both board members and public commenters emphasized the convenience of cashless fares and the need to ensure full access to the bus for unbanked riders. A representative from People’s Transit Alliance spoke up and suggested the expansion of the Clipper Start program, and Director Mark Williams asked the staff to research the feasibility and cost of such an expansion.
Metropolitan Transportation Commission Board Meetings
MTC is a body of stipended appointees or salaried MTC leadership that oversees funding for transit-related services in the Bay Area. These include both public transit agencies (like AC Transit) and capital projects. MTC has nearly all of the power to grant or deny funding to transit in the region.
January 27, 2021
The first MTC Board Meeting of 2021 focused on funding allocation to regional agencies and the Bay Area’s long-term transportation vision.
MTC approved a proposal to ensure flexibility in the administration of federal funding so that agencies can use recovery funds for what their area needs most, including operations. For the past several decades, transit agencies have only been able to spend federal funds on capital improvements, like buying new vehicles, rather than on day-to-day operations like paying operators. This year is different because transit funds in the COVID-19 stimulus packages can go wherever MTC thinks they need to, and this proposal made sure that operations are on the table. This is a profound shift from the 2009 recovery, when the old constraints left agencies buying new buses and laying off operators at the same time.
To close out the meeting, the Board received a report from the planning committee on the Plan Bay Area Blueprint. The Blueprint is a long-term plan outlining the Bay Area’s transit goals from now until 2050. Plan Bay Area will not enact these changes, but rather provides recommendations for legislation that will move these plans further.
Notably, in December, the plan was revised to include a vast increase in the expectations for housing construction in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. This revision prompted concerns from stakeholders who believed the Plan, left unaddressed, would lead to housing construction exclusively in working class neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color, rather than disbursing new construction throughout the region, including in high-income and majority white neighborhoods.
The MTC Board was responsive to these criticisms and voted unanimously to study equity impacts of the current proposal and how climate goals affect displacement.