BART riders and the Bay Area economy got a temporary reprieve this week when Gov. Jerry Brown took emergency action to avert a damaging strike by workers locked in acrimonious contract talks. Neither riders nor the Bay Area economy will be so lucky if the result is a new labor contract that fails to address BART's long-term fiscal and infrastructure needs and puts more pressure on the agency to raise fares, increase taxes and delay critical system upgrades.
There has been plenty of squabbling between the two sides, not all of it related to the central issues that need to be resolved. Both sides have accused the other of negotiating in public at the same time they are both negotiating in public.
Unions seem oddly indignant that BART would bring a tough negotiator to the table, as if holding the region hostage to a strike doesn't amount to hardball tactics.
And BART management seems tone deaf when their well-paid chief negotiator takes vacation days at critical times during the talks. As fascinating as all this might be, however, it misses the point.
What matters is that if BART doesn't get a firm handle on unsustainable compensation costs, everyone is going to pay: riders, employees and the region.
And if BART doesn't come up with the $15 billion it's going to take to upgrade and expand over the next 20 years, there won't be a system to operate. Riders are going to wind up paying higher fares. And a BART system that operates the oldest fleet of mass transit rail cars in the country won't be able to support the region's future economic growth.
BART workers currently don't pay anything toward their pensions, at the same time BART faces unfunded pension liabilities of more than $158 million.
Workers pay $92 a month for health benefits, including for an unlimited number of family members, that cost an average of $1,500 a month and have risen 251 percent in the past 10 years. That $92 represents just 6 percent of average premium costs, half the national average that individuals pay and a quarter of what families pay, according to a 2012 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
In addition, median pay for BART workers is $80,000 a year, compared to $48,000 for the Bay Area. Add in benefits and overtime and the whole package reaches a median exceeding $130,000 a year -- costs that make up 72 percent of BART's operating budget and make BART workers among the best-paid transit workers in the nation.
If we've learned anything from cities like Stockton, Detroit, San Bernardino and Vallejo, where out-of-control pension, health care and salary costs played a large role for municipal bankruptcies, it's that we must be extremely careful about the promises we make and that platinum benefits packages in this new age of fiscal austerity are unsustainable. Spending on pensions and health benefits is among the fastest-growing segment of municipal costs.
Bay Area residents are clear on where they think BART's priorities should be. In a poll the Bay Area Council conducted last week, 85 percent of respondents said that any available funds BART has should go to upgrading the system. The same poll found that just 16 percent of people think BART workers are under-compensated.
Commuters and businesses were relieved that Brown stepped in to halt a second BART strike and prevent the chaos and huge economic cost to the region. There will be even more relief if the two sides can reach an agreement that is consistent with today's new, tighter fiscal realities, reflects the generous compensation workers already receive and recognizes the awesome investment BART must make to keep the trains rolling and our region growing.
Rufus Jeffris is vice president of communications for the Bay Area Council.