Tag Archives | transit equity

TriMet and the Trust Gap Part 4: The equity question and the labor/ridership dispute

Chris has been doing a series on mapping service equity–examining the correlation between transit service, income levels, and population density in different census tracts. It’s a useful exercise to see how well different communities are being served by transit–there are many parts of the metro area which are poorly served (and some not at all), but in many cases service to these areas is difficult to provide.

This post looks at equity at a higher level, however. Rather than focusing on transit riders, this looks at the tradeoffs involved between riders and two other constituencies with dogs in the proverbial fight.

OK, the finance question will be part five. This week’s thread on the failure of 26-119 brought up some interesting (and heated) debate, which deserves its own article.

Chris has been doing a series on mapping service equity–examining the correlation between transit service, income levels, and population density in different census tracts. It’s a useful exercise to see how well different communities are being served by transit–there are many parts of the metro area which are poorly served (and some not at all), but in many cases service to these areas is difficult to provide.

This post looks at equity at a higher level, however. Rather than focusing on transit riders, this looks at the tradeoffs involved between riders and two other constituencies with dogs in the proverbial fight.

The three constituencies

There are several constituencies which have a stake in the transit discussion. The first group to consider, of course, is riders–those who do, or may, use the system. Given that public transit in the US is invariably subsidized, a second constituency is taxpayers, who provide funding for the construction and maintenance of the system, on the theory that public transit provides a social benefit. (Whether it is worth the cost is part of the debate; my personal opinion is that the public value of transit is quite significant). The third group we will consider is labor–the transit agency’s employees.

There are other constituencies that might be said to have a skin in the game, such as development interests, politicians, agency management, etc.–and a frequent criticism is that these groups have too much influence on the decision-making process. My suspicion is that few people would publicly endorse the notion that transit ought to be implemented (using public funds) for the benefit of property owners (regardless of what goes on behind the scenes), so they’re not included in the Big Three.

The shrinking pie

The reason this question is so important–is what happens when the pie shrinks. TriMet’s pie has been shrinking for the past few years–in this thread, I’m asking readers to ignore the questions of why (economic conditions, agency mismanagement) and instead focus on how the pain should be distributed. (This discussion is also useful for when the pie grows–and maybe even more important to consider in good times, given that unwise choices often get made during a boom that only have consequences in the following bust).

One practical reality is that in a democracy, the group that is often best able to protect its slice is the taxpayers. We just saw this with 26-119; TriMet asked taxpayers to provide some additional funds to help with budget shortfalls; the voters said no. TriMet cannot, in general, unilaterally impose tax increases–which have to be approved by either the voters or the legislature. As a result, lean times often produce arguments between riders and labor, over which should bear the brunt of budget shortfalls.

Dueling progressives at ten paces

This argument turned heated in the prior thread. One commenter, a long-time transit activist in town, wrote:

The real reason the bus measure lost (but not in Multnomah county where 9 of the 11 MLR stations are located) is TriMet’s too generous benefits package for its union workers. Riders are paying more and getting less, are Ops and Mechanics ready to share the pain?

Which prompted the following response from another frequent commenter, who is employed as a TriMet bus driver:

I never thought I would see the day when [first poster] would support the cascade policy institute in its quest to deny American citizens livable wage jobs with real benefits.

Both posters have extensive progressive credentials; neither would ever be confused with a conservative. Nor would the first poster, a dedicated transit supporter, have anything to do with a right-wing (and frequently anti-transit) organization such as Cascade Policy Insitute. But the second poster’s frustration is perfectly understandable–he sees his livelihood as under attack, and not just from the usual suspects on the political right, but from groups on the left as well, who long had been allied with labor.

This is a particularly nasty fault line in progressive politics in the US–there seems to be a growing rift between many social service advocates and public employee unions. I can think of quite a few well-known transit bloggers and writers, dedicated progressives all of them–who loathe their local transit union. (One of these activists made an interesting observation–the cities with the best transit tend to have the strongest transit unions; whereas the cities which only run low-quality social service transit are more likely to have outsourced their operations, often to non-union operators). And as more and more private-sector jobs are outsourced and more private-sector unions busted, public employee unions are finding themselves more and more isolated–whereas in the past, the passengers on the bus were often union workers as well; a larger share of bus and train passengers are non-union white-collar or service workers.

A similar situation plays out in public education–where one finds progressive community activists increasingly willing to take on education unions. The solidarity which once existed between labor and social service is rapidly eroding as the two groups are more and more forced to compete for crumbs of an ever-shrinking pie–a state of affairs which weakens both of them (and only benefits interests who are opposed to both quality transit and a robust labor market). Unfortunately, I suspect this will worsen before it gets better.

The question

So the important question is: When the pie shrinks, what should happen to the various pieces? How ought we balance things like fare hikes/service cuts, wage and benefit reductions, and tax increases? And what if the last of these is not possible–who should suffer the most? The guy at the front of the bus or those in the back? And is there a satisfactory answer to this question that might heal the rift between labor and riders–something that if done, might increase their ability to jointly protect their interests? And how was this question answered during the boom years of the 1990s–should the groups which benefited the most during good times be asked to bear the brunt of the pain in bad times?

This is a difficult topic, I realize–both riders and drivers have their livelihoods at stake. (As do many taxpayers, who are seeing their paychecks go down, but public agencies asking for more and more money). But please remember–no personal attacks or uncivil commentary.