Friday, May 27, 2005

Bogus BART Poll 

The Dispatch: "'The poll was incredibly bogus,' [Stuart] Cohen [the executive director of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition] said. 'The analogy is asking someone whether they want a Mercedes or a Buick, when the fact is that someone would be able to have nine other vehicles for [the] price of that Mercedes. That’s where the poll is totally ridiculous and invalid. What the South Bay needs is a comprehensive rail and bus system and they won’t get it if all the money is put into one project.'"

Right on the money! This isn't the first time a poll was designed to elicit the results desired by the sponsoring organization, in this case VTA. How much would you bet Ron Gonales had a hand in designing the poll? He has been BART to San Jose's biggest supporter. He's building his legacy one huge over-priced construction project at a time. But this one will cost many people their jobs and force many more to move closer in to where they work just to be able to have transportation.

Thanks Mr. Gonzo. Thanks a lot.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Will Work for Food 

The Dispatch: "'We’re not going to get any help from the state or federal government,' [County Executive Pete] Kutras said. 'We’re either going to have to dramatically [reduce services], or have a sales tax for local services.'"

VTA's hand will be out again soon, even though after testing the waters to see if they are warm enough to get another sales tax increase all indications are negative. But the county is also considering a sales tax increase, and both can't be approved, because state law caps sales tax at nine percent. Voters are not likely to approve another hike for VTA, which has increased fares annually while reducing service. This comes at a time when VTA also is expanding its light rail lines and Mayor Gonzoles is pushing to build BART to San Jose even though there is no federal or state backing of the plan. Now the competition with the county for sales tax dollars is heating up as they feel the pinch of declining tax revenues.

I have said it before, and I say it again here: VTA has mismanaged its funds to the point where it is millions of dollars in debt and cannot make good on its long-term obligations.

If the county's tax measure passes, as much as 40% of it could be diverted to VTA. But there is not enough public support to get the required two-thirds vote to pass it, so the county is facing big service cuts. The revenues for the last tax increase aren't likely to provide the shot in the arm VTA hopes they will, due to the sluggish economy, and it isn't likely to get better any time soon. The problem VTA now faces, and the union had better prepare its membership for, is that it must drastically increase its funding or face the fact that it cannot continue existence as a centrally managed mass transit agency responsible for both light rail and bus service for the entire county.

VTA seems to see it that way, too. They are starting a free shuttle service in Los Gatos starting in July that will replace the 60 line. It remains to be seen whether Steve Wong and the gang can make good on his public threats to sue VTA over this plan and whether a court would hold VTA to their agreement with ATU to keep it an all-union shop.

It now looks to me like VTA is intent on eliminating its union-based bus service in favor of low-wage contracted workers and repainting itself as a rail service agency like BART. Whether this can succeed is questionable, given the shift in focus for federal transit funding from light rail to alternative fuel bus technology (e.g., hydrogen powered buses). But with San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales heading the VTA board by being responsible for appointing five of its 12 members and his determination to BARTify San Jose even without outside help, it looks as if there will be no alternative.

VTA would have far fewer problems if it weren't so reliant for local funding on sales tax. SamTrans gets some of their funding from local property taxes, which must be paid regardless of current economic conditions. They have an excellent record of never having to lay off drivers or cut service. VTA puts all of its local funding eggs into one basket with the consequence being wildly fluctuating revenues that are tied to the health of local businesses.

Unless VTA finds another way to fund its operations, it had better revise its mission to exclude bus service and concentrate on the only things it really cares about--light rail and BART. And the union had better wise up and prepare its members for hard times.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Fitch Rates Santa Clara VTA Outlook Positive 

Fitch Rates Santa Clara VTA, California's $232.3MM Sales Tax Bonds 'A+'; Outlook to Positive: "The system's low farebox recovery ratio is expected to remain below 15% through fiscal 2009 despite projected fare increases made in accordance with the board-approved fare policy."

That policy is to raise fares annually for the foreseeable future. Fitch also mentions that the bonds VTA has on offer are secured against its sales tax revenues, which, although recovering, remain sluggish. They rate VTA A+ (Positive). It all seems positive, but to secure that rating has required steep cuts in service and union personnel, even though they insisted on building new light rail and buying new buses with borrowed money, all of which are mentioned in the rating summary, but which Fitch manages to put a positive spin on. All one need do to see the reality of VTA's situation is to compare them to their nearest neighbor, SamTrans, which has laid off perhaps 3 or 4 administrators while maintaining service and front-line staff levels.


PROPOSED BY-LAW AMENDMENTS: "In addition to the monthly dues, there shall be a five-dollar ($5) General Fund Assessment to pay for Arbitration expenses, mandatory audit expenses, and general office expenses."

Before I get into this, I'd just like to say it's about time you updated your web site. Okay, let's get on with it.

"For their faithful performance of their duties, Executive Board Officers shall pay ½ of their Union Dues..."

"For the faithful performance of their duties, Committee members... shall pay ½ of their Union Dues..."

Faithful performance? How do you define "faithful performance"? Does it include negotiating a new contract that reduces wages and benefits over the previous contract covering the same period? Does it mean fighting for the jobs of known scumbags who happen to have a buddy in the union office while turning your backs on conscientious employees who happen to disagree with your politics? Perhaps it means depriving members of printed copies of the contract so they can't know if it is being violated. Or does it mean merely neglecting to update the local's Web site for years on end to enable the board to supply as little timely information to the membership as reasonably possible?

Arbitration, and employee infractions, have become so common-place that you feel a standard $5 assessment is necessary to help cover the expense of getting jerks their jobs back. Let's not forget that it is also to help cover the expense of "mandatory audit(s)". When was the last time you made an audit of the Union's financial expenditures easily available to the general membership?

It would be nice to only pay half the dues other members pay, while not having to sit behind the wheel or crawl under a bus. But then, the difficulty of dispatching your duties as hard-working, non-partisan representatives of all ATU members does take its toll, and is a very small price to pay for the stellar performance you give.

On June 15th the membership will have an opportunity to tell you what it thinks of your performance via a vote on your proposed by-laws ammendments. The only changes that have any real meaning are the ones concerning the dues paid by board and committee members. Assessments for arbitration, audits, and general office expenses are easily covered by month-to-month assessments as always. Simply asking any front-line worker "When was the last time your monthly dues fell as low as $62.09? (the proposed new base monthly dues amount)" will verify this.

So let's not be deceived into thinking that these changes are necessary to balance the Union's books. They are mainly designed to provide built-in monthly increases that the board does not have to explain to the membership, which will provide a means to assess greater month-to-month increases that won't look as bad as they do now with the current lower base dues. And with the added perk of halving the dues of board members for their "faithful performance", it all adds up to a great deal for the membership.

Keep up the good work.