The BART Strike: A Microcosm of Progressive Power and Policy

Like two trains passing in opposite directions in a tunnel, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) strike has created some loud and startling sound waves that echo around the contours of power in America.

Every work day, 200,000 passengers board BART, mostly for the commute from suburbia to downtown San Francisco.  When the Service Workers International Union (SEIU) and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) went on strike, they dumped these 200,000 passengers on one of the most overcrowded and difficult highway systems in America.

San Francisco is located on a peninsula, and approaching the city from the east requires getting through the infamous MacArthur Maze, the largest and most complex traffic interchange in the world. Plotting a course through it with tens of thousands of additional cars on the road is an extraordinary challenge, creating incredible stress and frustration, and  generating anticipated pressure to force a favorable settlement of the strike.

Despite its attractiveness, light rail is the most expensive type of public transportation, largely because of initial capital costs and high labor rates. The labor costs are frequently a consequence of sweetheart  deals negotiated directly and indirectly between public officials elected with union help and the unions who helped elect them.

The public officials initially are very generous to their union patrons. But over time, they simply run out of taxpayers’ money.  The BART contracts are indicative of that process.  BART employees pay absolutely nothing into their retirement programs.  Add to this the fact that an employee pays only 92 dollars a month in health insurance regardless of the size of the employee’s family and there is a benefit package most professionals would envy.

Although base salaries do not appear extravagant, when overtime, pension benefits, and health care are added together to create a total package, BART employees are very well compensated. It is not unusual for a station agent to make over $70,000 in total compensation or a senior BART police officer (not currently on strike) to make $250,000 in total compensation.

Unions ordinarily have enormous political power. But the unions involved in transportation here have additional power because of the impact of policy decisions on our population distribution. Californians love creating open space as much as they love preventing development. Consequently, large areas that in other locales would be turned into communities are left fallow.

This artificially forces up the price of housing because it restricts the supply of land for building. It also pushes population in search of affordable housing farther and farther out from the urban centers. What starts out as a seemingly benign environmental policy has opposite and unintended consequences.

When people move farther out from the urban centers where they work, they engage in longer commutes, burning more fossil fuels, creating more pollution and more traffic congestion, and demanding more mass transit. It’s a circular problem.  Mass transit is built to respond to migration away from the city, and mass transit makes it possible for people to move farther out from the city.  The mass-transit solution to the population dispersion means commuters become dependent on mass transit and vulnerable to the collective bargaining demands of unions.

But there is another environmental consequence of the population dispersion.  The  climate along the coast is relatively mild in both of the  two local seasons, wet and dry. Generally, the closer you get to the coast, the less you need heat and air conditioning.  In contrast, as you go east toward the central valley, the climate changes dramatically -- winters are colder and summers can be unbearable.  Burning fossil fuel for heat and cooling are essential.  From an environmental point of view, our population should be concentrated in multiple family units within the protected range of our benign climate and close to the urban areas where people work.