Lake Transit Chopping Block

As everyone knows a big chunk of transit money is grants. One of these grant pools is drying up this year. This particular pool has been getting smaller every year. Now the Transit Authority has to make cuts in service.

Most of these cuts will be lightly used routes and runs. Some routes are untouchable for the time being. Our contracted general manager will look at ridership on each run, how much money we have left, and what changes have to be made in the other routes to smooth over the gap. His recommendations will be made to the Transit Board and they will vote yes because they will not want to study the details.

In past meetings the General Manager and the Operations Manager noted which runs will be looked at hard for possible cuts. These tend to be routes to the hinterlands, 2 and 4A, and runs on popular routes that are too early or late to have more than one or two passengers on board. Regardless of the number of passengers, if these runs connect to an out of County route they can’t be cut. Otherwise another pool of money will disappear entirely.

There are a couple of special cases. One is that part of the 4A that runs to the Konocti Vista Casino. In addition to gamblers, people work at the Casino and there are two large communities nearby. Years ago, before the 4A was born, this was on the popular Route 4 line. Four was later diverted to Highway 29 outside Lakeport to express itself to Clearlake. If 4A is eliminated 4 will have to reroute its service back to Konocti Vista.

The other special case is the City of Clearlake for a couple reasons. Clearlake receives over have the system’s transit runs on three local routes. All three overlap in a large triangle area in the center of the City. Clearlake’s local area includes the adjacent town of Lower Lake where the High School and Lake County Social Services are located.

Lower Lake is served as an afterthought at the tail end of Route 10. This Route is primarily designed to serve Clearlake Park, a subdivision of extremely bad and narrow roads. Instead, most people go to Lower Lake on Route 12 which loops around town at the beginning of the Route before overlapping Clearlake’s center triangle with the other two local Routes. On Saturday the High School and Social Services are closed. Probably Route 12 could be closed on Saturday as well.

Since schedules take time to design they aren’t done for minor or temporary changes. There is a rumor that all the cuts that could be made without damaging service too much will be made all at once, even though this may be a little ahead of the curve money wise.

The good news is that during periods of forced change, opportunities arise to make other changes. Change requires a period of adjustment so managers who like things to run smoothly don’t change for creative purposes. Change is usually the result of more money, less money, or a new law. The route cuts and changes may reopen cost neutral options for the overlapping local routes in Clearlake. The overlaps produce ongoing transfer and route planning confusion.

Due to three routes overlapping many passengers could misuse transfers for return trips. That is why a rigid policy exists allowing transfers at only specific locations other than the beginning of the route. It is inconvenient and seems unfair to riders. If a passenger is adamant that they got on the wrong bus to begin with, drivers will usually relent and ask another driver to honor a transfer.

The service rule for Clearlake is that any local route change must all serve current stops every hour. By measuring the time allotted between all Clearlake stops on each of the three routes and adding these segments together you get the total amount of time to serve Clearlake. Currently it takes two full routes and most of a third to do the job. It would take a single bus an hour and 20 minutes to serve all Clearlake stops. Passengers would also feel thrashed after such a long local ride.

But I have made an amazing discovery. Using the time numbers and the limiting assumption I have found a cost neutral way to hit all the Clearlake stops every hour using only one route. This would eliminate all transfer problems and most trip planning difficulties in the City. This seems impossible given the hour and 20 minute drive time to travel to all stops. Guess how it could be done. Hint: All three local routes are intersecting loops.

Sustainable Economics Conference

I wish I could have made the Conference. I bought a ticket but the sustainable approach failed me.

Taking the 12:45 Route 3 from Rays in Clearlake should have got me there. We boarded and secured a large wheelchair at Twin Pines Casino which put us 10 minutes behind schedule to catch the Route 10 in Calistoga Southbound. I called The Vine and asked for a short hold. The dispatcher said she would try but Calistoga was at the limit of their radio reception.

As we had the Lincoln Bridge in sight, one minute late, we saw the 10 pull away. Now I’m down an hour waiting for the 3pm Route 10. I get to the Napa Transfer Station to catch the 4:30 29 Express to the North El Cerrito Bart. I wait and wait. Its 5:15. Another rider finds out the 29 Express is a turnaround and due to heavy traffic in American Canyon they are skipping the 4:30 and we’ll have to take the 5:30, too late to catch the Conference after a Bart trip to the 19th Ave Station. (by the way, the SELC directions map doesn’t have the Bart stations on it.)

It looks like Napa Vine is a sustainability barrier. Lake Transit drivers carry a company cell phone when they are out of radio range. As the Vine offices are at the transfer station someone could have walked over to the 29 Express platform to tell passengers the 4:30 wasn’t happening. I would have at least been able to catch the next Northbound 10 to catch the last Route 3 back to Lake County.

This was not the first time the Vine stranded me. Sustainability requires flexibility but also functionality. I guess I will have to follow the SELC online.

Brought to You by the DNC

With only Michigan still hanging in the balance, the Presidential Election is Done. Trump was an unlikely nominee and an unlikely victor, at least according to polls. But polls don’t count a lot of things. They don’t count a dislike of polls and how they are used. They don’t count the distrust of a corporate media which has their own agenda. They certainly have no way of registering the intensity of betrayal, unfocused rage, humiliation, and a singleminded determination to make someone, anyone pay for what is essentially the end of hope, patience, and confidence in conventional wisdom.

The media of course pointed out the corrosive, self centeredness of Trump when he was still a contender for the Republican nomination. The other candidates pulled away from him because of his bluntness but most of them had been carefully cultivating the soil of resentment for some time. After all the Republicans’ opportunistic promises, the faithful were demanding that the insider Senators and Governors lusting for the brass ring to spell out exactly where the harvest was, dammit. The more the polite candidates isolated him the more he stood out. The more the media attacked him for his divisiveness the better he looked to his core supporters. Trump’s numbers went up after every smug expose’.

It didn’t hurt Trump that the other primary pretenders were putting all their chips on one losing number or another. “I’m the Jesus candidate.” “I’m the Black candidate.” “I’m the woman candidate.” “I’m the hereditary dynasty candidate.” I’m the…..you get the idea. The Republicans started a high stakes game that an outsider was now better at playing. Trump only bet on one number too but it was a comparative winner – “I’m not an elected politician and I have enough money to make the Republican negative program happen without donors who have strings attached.” Bingo – a winner – so to speak. In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king.

Although the Trump strategy was a winner to get the nomination it should have guaranteed a 1964 Goldwater type train wreck in the general election. Fortunately for him the Democratic Party National Committee came to his rescue. The Country just went through eight years of shell shock after the 2008 crash with only some short term stimulus, no recovery for those taking the big hits, and no jail time for those responsible. Now someone who had been drawing big administration checks all that time thinks she should be President. Virtually all the grass roots, progressive, and blue collar families who went from 60 to 0 in 5 seconds said, “I don’t think so.” An old independent Senator who registered Democrat to fill the void stepped forward.

In America it’s tacitly accepted that you can lie, cheat, and steal to get something in politics as long as you stay within bounds. One of those bounds is that competition among fellow travelers should not descend into fatally backstabbing each other. This would weaken the commitment of the faithful in the General Election. The Republican Party understands this point. The Democratic Party decided to do something different.

A micro cabal of self important dictators, called the Democratic National Committee, decided that anyone who challenged “their” anointed choice for President should be subjected to every trick in the book. They also saw nothing wrong with funneling all money for the Democratic Party to the DNC’s chosen one. What do we care about what a bunch of stupid peasants say in silly primaries?

In spite of overwhelming support of the rank and file, big money prevailed. Incredibly, the DNC thought that the millions who threw their heart and soul behind a game changer would forgive and forget to close ranks against some mythical common enemy. Most Bernie supporters did not have “stupid” tattooed on their foreheads.

Much to the surprise of the professional pundits, the howls of pain and anguish of Trump supporters prevailed over the arrogance of the Democratic establishment. The rust belt that went for Obama in 2008, defected to Trump. Pennsylvania one of the five biggest states: Obama in 2008, Trump in 2016. Obama got North Carolina, a Southern state, in 2008. Lost to Trump in 2016. Trump’s victory was in spite of thinking conservatives defecting to the Libertarian Gary Johnson campaign. It took both major parties together to fantastically screw up to get Donald Trump elected. Maybe we need to dump this anomaly called the two-party system. It breeds an opportunism the future cannot afford.

People who do not share Trump’s simple scapegoat values were angry after the election. They were so angry they decided to join Trump supporters and stop thinking, looking for their own scapegoats. They didn’t have to look far. Trump was the reason Trump was elected and they would riot and hold self righteous demonstrations to protest this reality.

None of these sore losers have the attention span to move on the causes of successive Wall Street crashes, an eight year do nothing administration, a DNC Hell bent on destroying any sign of intelligent life in the Democratic Party, and a 20 year campaign of voter disenfranchisement by the Republican Party. Trump was the beneficiary not the cause of this malfeasance.

In the next two years America needs to take off its dunce hat and put on its thinking hat. Defensively, we need to fund legal action to protect what’s left of our civil rights. But real change will require crafting a researched, long term agenda outside both major political parties. Fact finding across disciplines is not fun and sometimes reveals hard truths. American media will not help and sneer at you. Aggressive bottom up organizing for purposes of supplanting not serving the political and media elite is long, hard work. It is far easier to blame some egotistical, loutish, oaf, who never tried to disguise it, for the desperate choice of the people than it is to take direct responsibility for solving problems going back decades.

My Transit Union Goon Experience

 

Lake Transit is run by a contractor chosen by a three government “Lake Transit Authority.” That contractor then contracts with a labor union who represents the rank and file employees. On July 1 the labor contract was to expire. January 1, 2017 the contractor’s contract was to expire. The bus workers chose me to work with the negotiating committee for the labor contract.

Contractors are not like entrepreneurs. They do not have their own capital at risk. They can pack up and leave by not bidding on the next operations contract and have lost nothing. The buses, yard, equipment, and transit infrastructure are publicly owned capital. This reduces the contractor’s incentive to settle labor issues quickly. A contractor can lowball their contract bid and tell workers a raise in pay or benefits is not in their budget. Strike if you want to. We don’t care. This makes unions look ineffective.

This year is a little different. CalTrans, who has the final word on all matters transit, has put the LTA and the contractor on a strict timeline to create a new operations contract. This is due to the many contract extensions that were granted. The first speed bump date is July 11th. This is when the LTA’s draft Request For Proposals for a new operations contract must be sitting on CalTrans’ desk. To write this draft RFP all current costs must be listed, including labor. If there is a union their contract has to be put into the package but apparently is not binding on the new contractor.

I decided early on in the labor negotiations that I would only contribute my document research from CalTrans, my unique experience of going to all the LTA meetings, and quoting its general manager whenever possible. Just mentioning his name causes contractors to avert their eyes. The Union rep would keep the long formal process chugging along. Other bus workers at the table would pound on specific proposals.

After the third negotiating session it was clear nothing else was coming over from the other side of the table. Moving numbers around the columns and changing wording was not even inching us forward. Up to this point, the “progress” was the Union throwing out things from their original proposal. What was left was a few minor changes in conditions and trying to get a raise in some part of the three year contract.

The contractor was adamant that the money drivers got from the Valley Fire disaster funds was our raise for the rest of the year even though they did not pay any of it. At an earlier LTA meeting I pointed out that this infusion only covered most of the new minimum wage increase of one dollar. New drivers got an increase of 86 cents. So they were still further behind the minimum wage gain. The LTA’s manager, Mark (avert your eyes) Wall thought the difference between the minimum wage and starting driver pay should be two dollars.

So now its Tuesday morning, day 5. The Union committee decides that since the contractor wanted to wrap things up today we would oblige by giving our Best and Final Offer. Unlike three years ago when the drivers got their butts kicked, the contractor is under some pressure from the LTA to meet a deadline because the LTA is under pressure from CalTrans to move on their calendar.

So the contractor and Union committees face off across the table. The Union hasn’t budged since yesterday and says “Hey guys, how about your Best and Final offer so we can take it to our members tonight along with a strike vote.” Predictably, the contractors tensed up and asked for a brief recess. When they came back their fake smiles had vanished. Then they alternated between lecturing us as if we were naughty three year olds and accusing us of violating the National Labor Relations Act, without examples, and seemed to be on their way to charging us with crimes against humanity when we decided to break for another Union paid for lunch.

After lunch more trees had been sacrificed at the copy center. The contractor had made progress in wages that they might never pay because they would not start until after the operations contract had been awarded. Starting drivers would still start at $11.34 an hour till January First. On the First they would get $2.50, maybe. If the current contractor does not bid they won’t pay it. And a new contractor would technically have to agree to sign on to the Union agreement.

During break, the Teamster guy asked us what we thought and if the membership would vote for this contract. He thought that since the present contractor did not seem likely to put in a serious bid for themselves that this was probably the best we could get. I thought most would follow his lead but any drivers likely to quit soon, because of the mandatory six-day weeks caused by the driver shortage, probably would vote against the contract. The rest of our committee voiced concerns that the members were too tired to go out on strike. Lucky for low ball contractors, until we get too tired to drive and quit.

Sure enough, that night the members voiced their disappointment with different shortcomings of our thin work but still voted for the contractor’s meager three year contract offer which may end up back on the table with a new contractor. I wonder if the serfs felt this way – new Lord, same field to plow.

Meanwhile, the relentless march of the CalTrans procurement schedule leading to an operations contract award begins July 11 and ends with an award November 9th. The CalTrans approved RFP is released to potential bidders August 5 but I really need to see the draft that CalTrans sees July 11 so I can pitch a fit if a performance clause is not in it. An operation that is on forced six day work weeks for over a year is not fully staffed. When qualified drivers quit due to burn outs and melt downs, the money spent on training and increasing driver experience levels go down the drain.

What would such a staffing clause look like? I suggested a trigger of a three driver shortage over three months. This would be the indicator of a systemic fault. When both of these conditions exist continuously the contract should require a written explanation from the contractor of why this is an extraordinary glitch, how it is being fixed, and why they should not be fined for non performance. Mark Wall is simultaneously planning route reductions based on a grant shortfall. He doesn’t need the additional headaches from another low ball contract. I will now avert my eyes.

Who Will Drive My Bus?

As you know, we live in a market economy. Any attempt to buy something by paying less than the market price for a good or service results in a shortage or just plain no-takers. The alternative to making a better offer is to go to a slightly different market where your price may be accepted.

The obvious choice is to consider lowering quality, which tends to reduce price. In the case of transit drivers this may not be feasible to do on paper due to government regulations. Changing the paper is always a possibility but that takes a lot of work and creativity.

I have been proposing several recruiting strategies that appeal to niche markets. These will take a lot of effort and any one strategy won’t be very productive. The likely result of not changing our bus driver hiring practices will be canceled routes due to staff shortage.

The regular meetings of the Lake Transit Authority is a good first stop to make recruiting suggestions. In recent meetings I have suggested implementing a two year internship program that would enhance drivers employability for other jobs. The over 55  market is already well represented in driver ranks but we need to outreach to those who have given up in an otherwise disinterested market for older workers.

As the situation gets more desperate I have recommended raiding Napa for bus drivers with materials showing that the lower pay in Lake County would be offset by cheaper housing prices. Tighter definitions of background checks would allow expungement assistance by an auxiliary group. Many crimes would still be beyond expungement.

In a more innovative vein, we could hire a flex person with the guarantee of full time status after one year of reliable service. We could also take a big gulp of reality and acknowledge that many people need two part time jobs to survive but its hard to coordinate work schedules. The offer of a negotiated, fixed schedule would pull in a couple drivers who already have a part time job. And yes, flexibility needs would limit the number of fixed schedule drivers possible.

Another barrier to hiring two-job people is scheduling for only a few hours nearly every day. We have lost several quality people due to this practice. This reduces the chances of going to another job on those days. It would be more attractive to driver applicants to offer full day scheduling to accommodate work at other jobs on other days.

These measures require ongoing staff time and thinking outside the employment box. But another obvious step to recruiting does not. There needs to be a more effective job listing in CalJobs, the interlinked goto job board maintained by EDD. However the Paratransit notice for drivers is not optimized for keywords like “driver” or “bus” or “bus driver.” A short list of Clearlake “driver” jobs does not include our bus driver position. Job openings at the Lake County site only pop up in a complete dump of all job openings within 10 miles of the bus yard. Most people will not wade through pages of irrelevant listings.

The text of this elusive job notice could be rewritten also. Remember, qualified applicants are not lined up outside the door. If the pay offered is not top tier you need to sell the job to applicant buyers. There seems to be resistance to making effective pitches to potential drivers. Maybe someone who understands how the market system works needs to take over the driver recruiting job.

Sweat Shop Transit

Transit did not come to Lake County until 1995. By then contracting of normal government services was all the rage. For years contracting agencies paid enough to attract new drivers but not enough to keep them. Part of the problem was that drivers were hired part time with variable hours. People who planned to raise a family did not stay.

The last burst of effective hiring was in 2013 when a slew of new drivers were hired to replace drivers who went on strike. To accomplish this feat standards were relaxed to the legal minimum. Most did not stay long and I moved up to full time faster than I expected. Since then, even recruiting new drivers has been a problem. During most of this period full time drivers have been on mandatory 6 day work weeks. Under Affordable Care adding hours for part timers has been risky.

Although a few drivers appreciate the overtime, because otherwise they would have to get a second job, most are getting burned out with no life outside work. They are looking for other jobs or planning early retirement. This will make the driver shortage even worse.

In a market economy if you want more of something you offer to pay more. But local government funds are limited to one-quarter of one cent of the local sales tax. Lake County has a weak sales tax base. Fares are 19.2% of operating costs, a better percentage than richer counties. With starting pay dangerously close to minimum wage on January 1st (10.48 per hour) the General Manager suggested that cutting routes to pay higher wages was a future option.

At the end of 2015 the aftermath of the devastating Valley Fire created a brief reprieve. Relief funds could be used for transit if enough paperwork was filled out, a process that is ongoing after 3 months. When the check is in the mail it will amount to a new starting wage of 11.34 per hour, a smaller margin above minimum wage than before the 1st of the year. Assuming the funds materialize soon, imminent collapse of Lake County’s bus system is averted and transit returns to a mere staffing crisis.

With no strong support from local government, grant sources tapped out, and resistance from the Transit Authority to hiring people with ancient felonies there appears to be only one way to eliminate a permanent driver shortage – niche marketing to predisposed groups. I have identified two groups that the transit job unintentionally appeals to. Management ignores pitching to these groups. Probably because it will look cheesy to do so. But these groups are currently overly represented in the driver ranks so why not improve and control the process? No policy needs to be changed as far as hiring standards. This is purely a marketing approach.

The easiest and most politically acceptable group to target is the over 55 job seeker. They need to be marketed to because many have given up looking for work. Public service announcements beg employers to hire the over 55. Lake Transit will be able to present themselves as a socially responsible place to work. I’ve printed an “Over 55?’ flyer.

The second target driver group has an image problem. These are people who plan to bolt at the first better opportunity. The training and certification to drive a bus is time consuming and expensive but gives potential drivers a ticket out of town. A case can be made that driving for Lake Transit can be considered an “internship”, gaining the experience to get those high paid government transit jobs somewhere else. Drivers currently move on to greener pastures so why not add a small incentive to induce them to stay 2 years – an internship certificate, costing maybe 30 cents. Others who may not have bothered to apply if they didn’t plan to stay may sign up.

One thing these two target group approaches have in common is that they do not present the driver job as a career path to raise a family. This is a job for people who have already raised their family or plan to raise their family somewhere else. The goal is well within reach – a net gain of 4 drivers. Drivers keep leaving so if 2 leave during the target campaign we will need 6 drivers. Net gain is the key word. In a typical class of 3 drivers, one will get a better job during training or wash out, one will pass all tests but after a few months they decide they can’t handle dysfunctional passengers and quit, and one will last more than a year but maybe not as long as we hoped for.

Since transit in Lake County is not offering a career path for younger workers they have to play to focus groups. The alternative is to lose 2 more drivers and have to start canceling routes due to lack of drivers to drive the buses.

No More Bus Strikes

Lake County will not have another bus strike. Say it. Now everyone in a leadership position say it. “We will not have another bus strike. We will not allow take-it-or-leave-it scorched earth positions. We will address relevant issues and not put out a management contract that is tailored for the Lake Transit Authority to hide behind.”

During the last strike the the Transit Board held up their management contract and said “See we have a contract. Our hands are tied.” Of course, they are the ones who tied their own hands when they rubber stamped Mark Wall’s provisions. These provisions gave a mere management contractor the power to force a strike. Encouraging a contentious labor environment is not in the public interest. The elected members of the Lake Transit Authority should know this.

We have a short period of time to act before this dereliction of duty is repeated in the next management contract. Tell those Supervisors and Council people on the Board that we will not tolerate an attitude that says “Gee, too bad our vulnerable citizens are caught in a labor crossfire. It’s a good thing that, even though we are in charge, we can’t do a thing about it because of a contract that we never even looked at before it went out to bid.”

I’m sure the Transit Board is not using the contract as a cover for anti union bias or general contempt for Lake County’s poor and disabled. They just got a little lazy and now that they have seen the damage their lack of oversight has caused they will diligently fix the next management contract before it goes out to bid this Summer. Otherwise we will have to suck it up for another three years or longer.

Here is what must go into the next transit management contract to avoid future disasters.

First, and this should be obvious, we need a binding arbitration clause. This involves a competent third party that examines the facts without personal agendas. People with personal agendas will not like this. But this is Lake County residents’ bus system, in case anyone needs to be reminded.

Second, we need a wage and benefits structure that encourages bus driver longevity. Note that this does not mean a higher starting wage. A structure will create an incentive to develop as drivers and mentors here in Lake County. A wage structure says, we want drivers who will stay to develop the skills and acquire the experience to serve our most challenged citizens. A low, flat wage results in Lake County training drivers for other counties. Obviously, this is a waste of our taxpayer money as well.

Having a transit team saturated with new drivers is a public safety issue. Even Paratransit’s operation manager Wanda Gray admits that Lake County Transit has more bus damage than any other Paratransit unit. Unless this is an admission that she is hiring anyone with a pulse, we have to assume that this is the result of fewer than normal experienced drivers.

Finally, we need provisions in the management contract that prohibit management contractors from pursuing personal agendas. To ensure this, we need performance clauses with teeth. The performance clause in place during the strike was completely meaningless according to the transit tzar Mark Wall himself. Then why was it even in the contract? Was it a dumbed down version of an earlier contract’s performance clause?

Insist now, that the next transit management contract have binding arbitration, a wage structure, and a meaningful performance clause to serve the public interest and not personal philosophies. Lake County residents deserve it.