Last year’s bus strike sent shockwaves through the local public transit system that are still reverberating today.
Ridership is down significantly, and memories of long waits for limited service during Tucson’s punishing summer are still fresh.
“We must do everything in our power to ensure that such a strike does not happen again and that we in fact improve the transit system serving our community,” City Council members Karen Ulrich, Regina Romero and Paul Cunningham wrote in a September 2015 letter after the labor dispute was resolved.
Something they pushed for was “an examination of alternate management models.”
In response, City Manager Michael Ortega created the Transit Stakeholder Advisory Group in October 2015 that now has a draft recommendation: The creation of a so-called metropolitan public transit authority, which would replace the mayor and council as the body tasked with overseeing Sun Tran, Sun Link, Sun Van and other transit services.
Many steps remain before the mayor and City Council would even consider such a proposal, but your humble columnist thought it prudent to give his readers an idea of what that might look like well in advance of any vote. The Road Runner spoke with city, union, bus rider and private management representatives to get a sense of the pros, cons, concerns and questions regarding what Assistant City Manager Albert Elias said would be “a big change.”
While many specifics will have to be worked out, the transit authority, as sketched out in the recommendation, would be an “independent” agency run by an elected board that provides “equal representation by population to all areas within operating area.” It would also, perhaps most importantly, be able to levy a property tax with the approval of the county Board of Supervisors, as well as potentially directly manage the service.
As it stands now, transit workers are the employees of the private management companies overseeing Sun Tran, Sun Van and Sun Link, a model such an authority could possible still use. Tucson is the largest single funder of the system, but the county, other municipalities, the Regional Transportation Authority and the federal government also contribute significantly.
The dedicated transit funding source that a property tax would provide would be a big step forward, some say.
Andrew Marshall, secretary treasurer for Teamsters Local 104, which represents local transit drivers, pointed to the four strikes the system has seen over the last two decades, including the most recent, as evidence the operating model and heavy dependence on the city of Tucson general fund leaves a lot to be desired.
“You have to have a dedicated source of funding, or you’re never going to have labor peace, you’re never going to have the funds you need to provide a proper transit system for a metropolitan area that has over a million people,” he said, pointing out that the current Teamster’s Sun Tran contract is up July 31.
The amount of support for the transit system coming out of the city’s general fund has been steadily rising in recent years, and more than $30 million will go to the Sun Tran bus service alone over the next year, according to the most recent adopted city budget. Those steadily increasing costs were a big part of why the council raised transit fares in September for the first time since 2011.
Councilman Steve Kozachik agreed that a transit-dedicated property tax could take pressure off the city’s general fund and could ease contract negotiations by adding an additional funding source to meet union demands. However, he said he’s “not at all comfortable setting up another taxing authority,” which he said would be one more body competing with others, including the city, for funding from the local tax base.
“It’s not as though we’re creating a whole new pot of cash without competing demands,” he said, adding later: “I’m not so sure it settles much.”
Acknowledging “the sensitivity to increased property taxes,” the draft recommendation notes that any authority property tax levy could be initially offset by reductions to the city’s property tax, and that over time it could “substitute” the contributions of the city and other entities. State Sen. Steve Farley, who was also in the group, pointed out that the authority would simply have the power to levy a tax, not a mandate to do so.
In addition to having elected members from outside of Tucson city limits, within which the vast majority of bus riders live, the authority’s board would have the sole purpose of overseeing the system, as opposed to the City Council, which oversees numerous aspects of government.
“We have to look at every single department, all of the needs,” Romero said.
“If we have an elected board that has one job, they’re going to do it right,” Farley said of the proposed transit authority.
And one of the things they would be tasked with is deciding how should the system be managed. The draft recommendation calls for the authority to have the power to hire workers; contract out to a private management company, as is the case currently; or develop public-private operating partnerships.
Brian Flagg, with the Tucson Bus Riders’ Union, is excited about the prospect of cutting out what he described as the unnecessary “money-sucking middlemen” currently managing the transit system.
“They take a bottom-line kind of position that leads to strikes,” he said.
But Kozachik says that the council also bore responsibility for last summer’s strike, making Transdev — Sun Tran’s private manager — “the bad cop a little bit unfairly.” He added that one strike was not enough of a reason to abandon the private management model altogether, and that, “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Kate Riley, general manager for Transdev’s local operations, said her company is “happy to provide private management services to the city of Tucson, and we’d be happy to continue doing that.”
Private management “brings efficiencies to the table that perhaps you won’t get with other models,” she added.
In the meantime, things are going to continue as they have, though there could be some tweaks. Beyond the recommendation of a transit authority, the stakeholder group is advocating that financial incentives be developed to encourage the private managers to increase ridership and improve rider experiences.
And that, perhaps more than any other change, would be a good way to provide a more stable transit service, according to Farley.
Check out the survey in the online version of this story to weigh in.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4235. On Twitter: @murphywoodhouse