BART: In Need of Privatization

November 21, 2013

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the rail system that serves metro San Francisco, is running again, but only after a belligerent outburst by its workers that disrupted the Bay Area for months, says Scott Beyer, reporting for the National Review.

This past July the agency's unions, Amalgamated Transit Union and the Service Employees International Union, organized a five-day strike that affected 400,000 daily riders. California governor Jerry Brown helped restore services by declaring a 60-day cooling-off period between BART and the unions in August, but that produced another strike, four days long, in mid-October, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in productivity and forcing Bay Area cities to compile makeshift transport plans.

The strikes were partly because of worker disgruntlement over low pay.

  • Before the first strike, BART management had offered salary increases of 5 percent to 8 percent over four years, and requested that employees contribute small percentages to their pensions.
  • But the unions demanded 23 percent increases, and after both strikes, received 15.4 percent.

But if these examples show what rail transit can be, they also reveal how anachronistic it still is in the United States. In cities like San Francisco, rail is often run by regional authorities that, as in the Europe of old, are unionized and government-controlled. This has been a recipe for poor performance. Their workers can demand unreasonable salaries, protest layoffs and stifle inconvenient reforms without having to fear competitors.

All this, says transportation consultant and National Center for Policy Analysis adjunct scholar Wendell Cox, helps explain why many American lines underperform: "Not only does the public pay more with public-transit monopolies, but that means low-income people get less service, and the good that transit can do for the community is compromised."

For BART, which exemplifies this top-heavy model, the details of the strikes only strengthen Cox's point.

  • Currently, the average salary for the system's workers is $82,000, including the overtime added to their 37.5-hour workweeks.
  • This does not include fringe benefits (health care and pensions, for the most part), which average $50,800, bringing total compensation to over $130,000 annually, among the nation's highest for transit workers.

Source: Scott Beyer, "System Derailed," National Review, November 7, 2013.

 

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