Luckily, the BART strike has been averted and commuters can relax a bit, but unfortunately, BART’s financial crisis is unlikely to end this year. Probably as soon as next year, they’ll have to make more service cuts or raise fares again to balance the agency’s budget.
The BART board and BART spokespeople have done a great job scapegoating the unions for the financial woes of the agency. I won’t dispute the reality that government employee unions across the state have been renegotiating contracts and giving back, in the form of salaries or benefits. And I won’t dispute the likelihood that BART did need the unions to renegotiate in order to save some money.
But I’d like to examine the figure BART has been using throughout contract negotiations – the “need” to save $100 million in labor costs over four years. BART has consistently made it seem that the only place for these savings were to be found were via labor, but that is not the case.
Let’s take a look at the 2009 BART budget. It’s true that labor costs are a huge portion of this budget, at $388 million. But there are other substantial numbers that could be or could have been reduced if the BART board had made better decisions:
- $70 million in debt service
- $17.5 million to SFO reserves
- $107 million for system expansion
(I can’t find detailed breakdowns of these numbers so I’m going to extrapolate based on what I know. If anyone can point me to BART’s more detailed budget, I’ll write a follow up post with more information.)
The debt service and funding to the SFO reserves are costs that could have been avoided if BART had make better decisions in the past. Debt service comes from taking out loans for capital expenditures, much of which has been system expansion. The SFO funding is similar – BART predicted extremely high ridership on the SFO extension and it didn’t pan out. So now the core BART system is paying for these poor past decisions.
The $107 million for system expansion is different because a lot of that money comes from outside grants so it’s not being drawn from core system funding. However, BART does contribute some of this funding, as is stated in the budget, “The capital budget is funding primarily through capital grants; however District-allocated funds are also needed for a portion of the required local match and for expenditures which do not qualify for grants.”
So when BART says that they need to find $100 million in labor savings over the next four years and that service cuts and fare increases can’t be avoided, what they really mean is that they value system expansion over core service and labor. That means they’re choosing the Oakland Airport Connector and the extension to San Jose over running trains at least every 15 minutes at all hours.
Since there’s no sign that the BART board is going to change course and halt their wasteful expansions that endanger the core system, BART riders and BART unions should expect to be targeted during budgeting year after year. The $150 million dollar loan the BART board plans to take out to fund the Oakland Airport Connector will alone suck significant funds from the core system. Debt will grow and as ridership on the extensions does not pan out, the core system will continue to crumble.
The long term solution cannot just be about labor negotiations but must also include a change of course and prioritization. And for that, it might be time to get some new BART directors in office who, like Tom Radulovich, understand the need to protect the core system over expensive and wasteful extensions. Until the next election though, the best thing we can do is to stop the Oakland Airport Connector, which you can help do by signing the petition opposing the project and demanding a better connector.