While Bay Area transit agencies grapple with unprecedented budget shortfalls and passengers experience service cuts and fare hikes, workers enjoy benefits well above the national average.
The region’s 28 transit agencies face a shortfall of $8 billion over the next 25 years, and benefits like pensions, health care and workers’ compensation make up 34 percent of total operating costs, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The high cost of wages and benefits are not unique to public sector debt, but the Bay Area’s problems are uniquely acute.
Nationwide, benefits and perks make up about 30 percent of workers’ total compensation. All seven of the Bay Area’s largest transit operators top that total, led by AC Transit employees whose benefits make up 46.46 percent of their total compensation.
Muni workers receive 42.7 percent of their total compensation from benefits, BART 44.6 percent, Golden Gate Transit 46.2 percent and Caltrain 31.3 percent.
These high costs have had a direct impact on service. In recent years, Muni slashed service by 10 percent (although some was later restored), BART increased fares six months earlier than scheduled and Caltrain could potentially eliminate all but its most basic weekday routes.
“This is just further evidence of the grip organized labor has on our transit systems,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “If we want to preserve our current transit systems — and especially if we want to expand these systems — we’re going to have to sit down and have an honest talk about employee benefits.”
MTC Commissioners, who discussed benefits Friday, mentioned providing economic incentives for agencies that keep benefit costs below the national average.
MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger said his organization has no say in how individual transit operators deal with their unions. However, his agency controls about $650 million in annual allocations to 28 regional transit providers, and he said those dispersals could depend on how operators manage benefit costs.
At Muni, labor negotiations could soon bring changes. In November, voters passed Proposition G, a measure giving the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency sweeping bargaining power over the benefits and wages of Muni’s 2,200 transit operators. Calls to the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A were not returned Friday.
“We’re about to have an interesting test of whether the transit riding public will have its needs taken into account,” said Metcalf, who helped write Proposition G.