News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

October 23, 2019

Billionaires are wrecking public transit

By Sandy Barnard

Public transit in the Bay Area is seriously flawed: transit does not go where riders need to be, existing routes are under-resourced, and transit workers are not paid enough to live in the communities they serve. Area billionaires have plans to expand public transit, paid for through taxes on the working class. However, as long as the rich control our public transit system, these “fixes” will never create the public transit we need. They will only further line the pockets of the wealthy.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192 (ATU 192), the union representing AC Transit bus drivers and mechanics, recently authorized a strike. If ATU 192 does go on strike, it will be taking on the billionaires to win a public transit system that truly serves working people.

Public transit funding blues

On its face, public transit in the Bay Area suffers from four big problems:

The existing system does not adequately serve our growing metropolitan area. As rising rents displace tenants into exurbs and more jobs move into the South Bay, people are forced to travel longer distances and their commutes are not serviced by public transit

Public transit is a patchwork. BART, Muni, AC Transit, and Caltrain are run by different boards and funded through different sources, and they do not communicate with one another, raising costs for riders who travel across systems. 

Service is underfunded, leading to cuts in existing routes. Buses and trains run infrequently and move too slowly, especially in working-class communities and communities of color.

Transit operators are not paid a living wage. The inadequate wages lead to driver shortages, and because drivers can’t afford to live where they drive, some sleep in cars or their own buses at night.

Transit relies on two kinds of funding: capital funding and operating funding. Capital funding pays for infrastructure like new tracks, stations, and vehicles. Operating funding pays for salaries and other ongoing expenses. Lack of service and communication across systems are a matter of capital expenses: they would be solved by spending to build more and better infrastructure (e.g., building more stations in exurbs and developing links between systems). Underfunded routes and inadequate pay for transit workers are issues of operating costs. Public agencies must raise their operating budgets, year after year, to fully service existing routes with enough drivers, mechanics, and dispatchers.

The disconnect between the two types of funding sources creates yet more problems. If an agency builds more stations and implements more sophisticated communication tools without increasing operating budgets, then routes are stretched further, trips become less frequent, and transit operators have to learn additional skills that they are not fairly compensated for. Increasing capital budgets without increasing operating budgets exacerbates inequality and makes public transit worse, stretching the system to its limits.

In addition, capital spending on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has diverted money available for bus operating expenses. That has meant a decrease in the bus service that disproportionately serves people of color, while BART service — more heavily used by white people — expands.

Whose streets?

In an ideal world, public transit would be designed to serve the public. But in fact, the Bay Area’s public transit system has largely been built to serve the needs of the very wealthy at the expense of working-class riders. 

In the postwar years, BART was designed by the Bay Area Council (BAC) to bring commuters to the corporate offices owned by BAC members themselves, and to boost the value of their real estate holdings, rather than to serve the racially diverse public and their needs (as described in a new book by Kafui Ablode Attoh). This is evident to anyone who regularly rides BART: the three stations in downtown San Francisco are all 0.3 miles apart, while the four stations serving East Oakland (Lake Merritt, Fruitvale, Colosseum, and San Leandro) are an average of 4.5 miles apart. 

None of the largest hospitals are accessible by BART, and very few large schools are. The fastest transit system in the Bay Area is extremely effective at bringing people from the East Bay and exurbs into downtown San Francisco, and essentially useless at transporting nurses, teachers, and many other workers between work and home.

But CEOs aren’t content to just make land use decisions that disproportionately benefit themselves and their corporate investors. They also eagerly pursue new ways to privatize public transit, which would turn public infrastructure investment into private profits. Proponents of privatizing public transit, like this Koch Institute Fellow, claim that privatization lowers costs — by slashing worker pay and funneling money from riders and workers into the pockets of wealthy executives and shareholders. Public transportation is heavily subsidized, with BART receiving over $500 million and AC Transit receiving over $38 million in federal assistance in 2017. Privatization can represent substantial public funds going to private, unaccountable corporations who want to run transit instead of public agencies.

Meanwhile, some ultrarich investors want to replace public transit entirely with “rideshare” services like Uber and Lyft. As E. Tammy Kim writes in the New York Times, “Uber and Lyft have been clear [that] one of their strategies is to replace public transportation.” Replacing public transit could allow the wealthy to lower their tax burdens and profit handsomely from the public’s need for transportation. In fact, rideshare companies can lose billions every quarter, but the wealthy invest in it anyway to kill public transit and reduce their taxes.

Will billionaires fix public transit?

The Bay Area Council, the same group of billionaires who designed BART to serve their own interests, has a new plan to “fix” public transit. In an effort to further increase the property values of its members’ real estate, BAC is proposing a $100 billion increase in taxes to fund select investments in public transit. BAC wants to raise the money with a one cent sales tax, and is rejecting more progressive alternatives. Given that sales taxes fall heavily on people with lower incomes, it’s clear that Bay Area billionaires expect working-class people to foot the bill for transit improvements that mostly serve the billionaires. 

BAC is correct that Bay Area transit needs more public investment, and $100 billion could do a lot of good. New BART stations and bus rapid transit stops can bring more people from further suburbs into the city center. However, without ensuring that money will go to paying transit workers, reducing fares, and improving the bus service that serves the Bay Area’s working class, the planned changes will mostly help the wealthy at the expense of working-class taxpayers.

For the first time in decades in the US, the very rich paid lower rates in taxes than the average working-class person. Much of the East Bay is now an “opportunity zone,” which entitles wealthy developers to pay absolutely nothing in capital gains taxes on properties in our communities. Corporations headquartered in the Bay Area, like Netflix and Salesforce, owed no federal income tax in 2018. Across the Bay Area and the country, the wealthy are benefiting from a deeply unjust tax system.

Transit improvements should benefit the working class and be paid for by billionaires, not the other way around. We need better, more frequent bus routes in East Oakland and other working-class communities. Transit operators and mechanics, on whom the entire system relies, deserve safe working conditions and a living wage.

Fighting for the transit we deserve

Working people can win vibrant, functional transportation by standing together and fighting back against billionaires’ attempts to slash and privatize public services. Public transit was won in the 1946 Oakland general strike when workers across sectors stood together. From bus drivers to turnstile operators to mechanics who maintain cars and train lines, it is working people who keep the trains and buses running. Even as Silicon Valley rolls out driverless buses, many agencies are reluctant to automate drivers out of a job because of the social services they provide to their disproportionately elderly and disabled passengers. Public transit needs public transit operators, which gives these operators the leverage to fight for public transportation that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

ATU 192, the union for AC Transit drivers and mechanics, may be going on strike in the coming months. Pay for AC Transit drivers is not keeping up with the cost of living for many families. As a result many transit workers have become super-commuters or are forced to work two jobs, both of which lead to fatigue and poorer public transit for the rest of us. A strike to increase pay and benefits for bus drivers will improve bus service for the entire East Bay, but we should not think small. This strike represents working people fighting back to win a transit system that works for them and not the billionaires. Public transit belongs to the working class, not the wealthy, and we can fight to protect it.