Runaway transit fares fueled by pay, benefits 

A race between regional inflation and public transit fare increases in the Bay Area would be no contest. Transit fares have gone up twice as fast since 1991. During the past two decades, local inflation jumped 66 percent. But riders on the Bay Area’s seven main transit services are paying an average of double that percentage.

Muni monthly passes have shot up 100 percent in 20 years, with another increase due in July. A month of trips cost $30 in 1991 — now it’s $60. Single-trip fares have risen from 85 cents to $2. SamTrans on the Peninsula has even more outlandish fare boosts, with single trips ballooning from 60 cents to $2 and monthly passes rising 191 percent.

Employee wages and benefits are not the only cause of these runaway transit fares, but they are certainly a primary factor. It is labor costs that make up 75 percent of the budgets of the Bay Area’s biggest transit agencies. Fringe benefits for transit operators are especially expensive, with the inflation-adjusted costs increasing from $355 million to $601 million just since 1997.

Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin warned that transit pay continues to increase at unsustainable levels. It doesn’t help that locked-in formulas for annual wage and benefit raises are in effect at Muni and other transit providers, lowering worker incentive to negotiate much-needed changes in outmoded and wasteful work rules.

In January, Muni announced that it would pay off a $21.2 million deficit by slashing employee overtime pay while collecting more revenue from parking citations. Neither plan has worked out. Halfway through this fiscal year ending June 30, employees had racked up $28 million in overtime pay, putting Muni on track to spend $53 million — $20 million more than budgeted. As for the department’s expected boost in parking citation revenue, it is currently $7 million below projections.

Muni management appears to be doing a certain amount of magical thinking here. Overtime cost percentage as compared to total payroll has barely nudged since July. The agency now says it will balance the deficit by slowing down hiring and trying to delay work contracts. But it is hard to see how riders can receive anything resembling acceptable service without Muni either hiring sufficient personnel or paying overtime.

The never-ending fare hikes are especially frustrating because San Francisco and the Bay Area officially embrace a “transit-first” policy that is supposed to make public transportation a genuinely convenient and affordable alternative to automobile commuting. This promises to deliver the social benefits of easing gridlock on our roads, improving air quality, lessening dependence on costly foreign oil, shortening commute time and preserving open space for the enjoyment of all.

All this sounds very nice, but it’s apparent that none of it can ever happen unless Bay Area transit’s destructive cycle of automatic yearly pay-benefit boosts and archaic, counterproductive work rules is somehow ended.

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