Transit Beyond Our Means

Ask any conservative and they will tell you how a market price for a good or service works. In the case of wages, that price is some rate much smaller than whatever American workers are getting now. The reasoning is that unions and bureaucrats have done nothing but force wages up beyond this pristine state of Nirvana called “The Market Price.” But many changes have happened to the work world in the 21st Century.

In theory, people in the American Legion/Chamber of Commerce crowd will agree that prices can also be too low, causing a shortage until prices come up to the market price and eliminate the shortage. In practice, they believe this applies to wages only rarely and temporarily. That is because people in the working class could always work for less as long as they are above subsistence. And let’s not forget the quality and standards issue. You can always get cheaper help if you will compromise on quality.

Lake County has an amazing transit system for a small, poor, rural county. Even though our county is isolated and surrounded by mountains on all sides, we send out a total of 8 buses a day to Napa and Mendocino Counties. Ukiah is the nearest functional city outside the backwater of Lake County and Calistoga is the tip of a direct artery leading right into the SF Bay Area. It’s cheap too. Around the hundred-mile Clear Lake perimeter buses ply the shore until 9pm. Our better heeled Mendocino does about half our rural runs. Our local residents still complain.

Lake Transit pulls this off by not hiring anyone as County employees and putting a grant writer in charge of the whole system who also contracts with a management company. The nominally governing Lake Transit Authority has given the grant writer free reign. Public transit systems are designed to collect 15 to 20 per cent of costs in fares and suck up one quarter of a per cent in sales taxes. The rest is grants grants grants. The problem is grants are political and unstable. They come and go. But the passengers stay and stay and become dependent on the transit system.

At the April 13th meeting the grant writer revealed that from now on he will not be able to pull in as many new grants as he loses. Because of this crises he has asked CalTrans to extend the no bid management contract on a continued month by month basis. The drivers have been on this month by month extension for nearly a year. The structure of the contract dictates that the wages increase according to the management’s CPI increases. But over 9 years the all powerful market has decreed an increase greater than the CPI average, hence a shortage.

The inability to hire as many drivers as we need created a permanent driver shortage and mandatory 6 day burnout workweeks. This has gone on for nearly a year and a half, accelerating the attrition. I hear of drivers on the verge of quitting every day to get some of their life back. The candidates who would fill the gap have had felonies or couldn’t pass a drug test if you gave them the answers. The dream team drivers aren’t going to work for what the contractor is paying. And so the continuing shortage, burnout, and bigger shortage – a chain reaction.

On top of sub market wages workers have had to deal with the perverse incentives of the Affordable Care Act. Most employers have reduced full time employees to avoid the Act’s most onerous provisions. But scheduling flexibility is so critical in the crumbling bus driver roster that Lake Transit has actually increased the numbers of full timers. On the other hand, full time status used to be a carrot employees were striving for but in this case drivers are weighing pros and cons. The 6 day requirement means sections of lives are crashing over time and the company medical plan is weak with a large employee contribution.

In 5 years the shrinking grants will reduce routes and catch up to the dwindling driver pool. Before that time there will be canceled runs due to the driver shortage. With 6-day work weeks and management filling in scheduled runs we are two employee quits away from hanging out the “sorry closed” sign on the least traveled trips. Maybe we can push through an expungement for the more promising felons. Maybe we can borrow a driver from another company unit. But in the long run we will need another source of revenue other than fares, grants, and sales tax.

The biggest funding problem locally among the movers and shakers is the fact that transit in general is unpopular. There is a perception in places where business people meet and greet that transit serves the wrong kind of people.Transit makes it easier for those wrong kind of people to live here which scares off the right kind of people – high end kind of people that they can make money off of. Getting any funding support for the wrong kind of people from local boosters isn’t going to happen.

Not all identifiable bus passengers are politically untouchable. Trying to pull on the heart strings for the poor and disabled is a non starter if you are looking for votes. That is because there is an assumption that much of their problems are due to heavy drug use and other bad lifestyle choices. However, “veterans” and “seniors” get mostly positive reviews, with reservations that some of the wrong people have infiltrated their ranks. This means that it is possible to get some traction for veteran and senior transit support if it can be isolated from helping those lazy, ex felon drug addicts, hiding under the poor and disabled blanket, in the process.

A current window of opportunity is SB951 by Mike McGuire. This bill would allow all veterans to ride transit for free if local agencies pick up half the tab. If they pass on this they lose out on the State half to local transit systems. Even though Lake County doesn’t have any spare change for veterans it does have thousands of absentee owned lots with bad access. The property assessments on these are low. If our locals invest in infrastructure these freeloaders will benefit. A per parcel tax for target transit riders would include these non residents as part of the community unlike more sales taxes.

The parcel tax would pay for free transit for veterans and, to broaden the appeal of the tax measure, over 65 seniors. I would recommend the tax be the cost of a single weekly pass – 20 dollars. The tax would be the same amount regardless of the parcel’s improvements or speculative value. Multiple lot owners could legally combine their lots to reduce assessments. Renters wouldn’t pay. Developed property owners would hardly notice it. And owners of trash lots and abandoned property would throw some chips in the local game for a change.

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