AC TRANSIT is at a vital crossroad in its history. Like all government agencies, we are receiving less state and federal money, and our share of revenue from property taxes and sales taxes is dramatically lower than in the past because of the national, state and regional economic decline.
In the last year, the transit district was forced to raise fares for riders, decrease bus service routes, lay off senior management and make a series of changes to ensure that we are there for the people who need us the most — the more than 230,000 daily riders who rely upon us to go to school, to get to work and get home.
For a majority of our riders, the young, the elderly, the poor, our bus service is their sole means of transportation. Without public transportation, they will be unable to get around.
Our future — and the future of affordable and environmentally sound transportation for Alameda and Contra Costa counties' riders — is in jeopardy.
Seventy-five percent of AC Transit's budget is allocated toward labor costs. Unfortunately, the union leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), that represents 1,750 of our employees, refused to compromise and we were forced recently to impose a contract on union members.
We value our unionized staff and their daily contributions to keep our bus system running, but they must join management and their fellow colleagues in helping ensure our future, and the future of public transportation, for our riders and our transit district taxpayers.
AC Transit started out facing a $56 million budget shortfall for the 2010-11 fiscal year and we have made great progress in reducing that amount. But to balance the budget, the district needs the cooperation of its labor unions.
We have tried to balance our budget by doing everything possible to reduce expenditures. The faithful riders of AC Transit have contributed their share by paying 25 cents more per bus fare and enduring compromised service levels that have been cut by 15 percent.
AC Transit has also trimmed its administrative staff by more than 70 positions, resulting in a 33 percent reduction in its executive management.
Additionally, the board of directors have made sacrifices by cutting their travel budget by 50 percent, eliminating a special travel account for transit advocacy and by chopping their own salaries by 5 percent.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) failed to help us close the budget gap. That is why the district board voted to impose a contract last week. The district's imposed contract preserves basic union wages and health care benefits while reducing costs by $15.7 million by initiating work rule changes, co-pay policies for medical care and employee health insurance, and a two-tier pension plan.
This contract yields the savings that are necessary to close our impending budget deficit.
The district is hopeful that ATU leadership and membership will understand the reason for the board's action and continue to work under these new provisions.
However, the district recognizes that ATU members have the legal right to strike. AC Transit has advised all of its employees of the potential for a strike in the coming days or weeks and is poised to modify the district's operations should a strike occur.
After the imposition of the contract, the ATU is now asking the courts to order "interest arbitration" to resolve this bargaining dispute.
The district has not agreed to this procedure. One of the primary reasons is that the California courts have determined that interest arbitration allows a nonelected third party to make key financial decisions that are supposed to be made only by the elected board of directors.
Equally concerning is that if the union leadership is successful, it will cost AC Transit $300,000 on a weekly basis to return to our past contract, which would mean a bigger deficit and substantial changes to the transit system and more job cuts.
It's unreasonable for the ATU leadership to ask riders, taxpayers and the transit district itself to carry the burden of the significant economic changes that are impacting all of us without helping by eliminating wasteful work rules and contributing to health care costs. We hope that they return to the table and accept the imposed contract. If not, AC Transit may be forced to make additional cuts that will cause union jobs to be lost.
Mary King is interim general manager of AC Transit.