California Pension Reform Dispute Jeopardizes Local Public Transit

Apr 11, 2013

MST Line 20

California’s recent enactment of public employee pension reform could lead to the state losing billions of federal dollars for public transportation.  It’s a funding cut that would be felt first in smaller communities like the Monterey Bay Area.

Line 20 is one of the busiest buses in the Monterey Salinas Transit System.  All day it makes a loop between Monterey and Salinas.  Bob Parks is one of the route’s drivers.  He’s good with small talk and when passengers pay there fare they seem happy to see him at the wheel.  “I know passengers. You do this for 20 something years, they get to know you more than you know them,” said Parks.  But soon there may be less time to get to know anyone on the bus. Monterey Salinas Transit is preparing for a potential 30% cut to its budget.   This means laying off employees, eliminating or consolidating routes and reducing service on even the busiest lines.  Line 20’s service could be cut in half, instead of every 30 minutes pick up will be every hour.  “It’s going to be overcrowding. People are going to find other means to travel if they can’t get on the bus with their bike or wheelchair,” said Parks.

Passenger Gary Boatwright is one of the nearly 14000 people who ride MST buses every day. He says he’ll consider walking or getting a bike if the cuts get in the way of his routine. “I mean if I was working, and if I needed to get to work or something yeah. But right now I’m unemployed, so I just kind of use it to run around with,” said Boatwright.   A survey by MST shows that most of its passengers do use the bus to get to work or school.   These are the people MST General Manager Carl Sedoryk says he’s heard from at recent public meetings about the cuts. “Well, obviously people are upset.  They’re losing access to jobs, their losing access to work, to school, losing access to other services.  They  seem to understand that it’s not anything that MST has implemented on our own,” said Sedoryk.

The potential cuts stem from the state’s recent passage of the California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act, or PEPRA.   PEPRA limits pension benefits offered to new employees as of January 1st, 2013.  This caught the eye of the international transit unions that represent public transit employees in California.  The Unions argue that PEPRA  violates a section of the Federal Transit Act that protects a public transit employees right to bargain.  So the unions have taken their complaint to the US Department of Labor.  If it agrees bargaining rights are being violated, transit agencies like MST won’t get the money.  Sedoryk expects MST’s next operating grant of $3-million will face this challenge.  “And  unfortunately the real victims will be those people who cannot afford private transportation and people who are unable to drive their own vehicles due to disability or age or other issues that they’re going to be the ones who end up suffering as a result of this,” said Sedoryk.

Larger transportation agencies like Los Angeles County and Sacramento are also facing grant challenges.  But they use federal funds for less urgent capital expenses.   MST uses the money to pay bus drivers and purchase fuel.  So the loss of funds will be felt immediately.  If a grant challenge is successful or even delays the distribution of funds, MST’s planned cuts will go in effect at the end of June. 

Back on Line 20, bus driver Bob Parks, who is a member of the local union,  is eager to see a resolution.  “Our members are all kind of wondering, do I need to look for a job, the ones that are going to be laid off.  June 30th is not too far away,” said Parks. Still he says he supports the union challenging the grants.  “I believe the international is doing something that will benefit our drivers in California,” said Parks, “both sides need to sit down and realize that the union wants this bill to be for everybody in the Union not for everybody hired after January 1st, 2013 because no union works that way.”

As for solutions, Assemblyman Luis Alejo from Watsonville has proposed a bill exempting transit employees from the Public Employee Pension Reform Act.  But state officials are on the record saying they don’t believe PEPRA conflicts with basic collective bargaining rights, and continue to support the pension reform without exemptions.  In the meantime MST is urging the federal government to allow the money to continue to flow until the dispute is resolved.