There is talk of a transit strike in the region; yes, we have already heard what the head of the Amalgamated Transit Union that supplies labor to the Port Authority has said about the opening contract bid from the agency, but this strike is a little further north in Beaver County. The Beaver County Transit Authority (BCTA) is a bit smaller than PAT: the former has a service area of 440 square miles and directly operates 20 buses while the latter covers 852 square miles and directly operates 711 buses and several other modes of transportation.
But both are able to be bitten by the strike bug. Pennsylvania is one of a tiny minority of states where transit workers can go on strike.
How do these agencies compare on the efficiency of their bus service? In a Brief earlier this year we calculated the bus passenger cost by taking each agency’s operating and capital costs divided by the number of unlinked passenger trips. PAT had a passenger cost of $5.24: higher than the average for the group ($4.02). Using the same calculation for BCTA the passenger cost is $5.09, slightly lower than PAT. With a base fare of $1.75, taxpayers are covering $3.34 of a BCTA trip (for PAT this is $3.24). In 2008 when BCTA members protested working without a contract, it was reported that drivers were making between $10.55 and $11.88 per hour, considerably lower than the average PAT driver wage.
A strike affecting the BCTA might not get as much notoriety or affect as many riders as one involving PAT or SEPTA might, but it still points out the problem of permitting transit strikes.
Just hours after the conclusion of last night’s game 5 of the World Series between the Phillies and the Yankees some 5,100 bus, trolley, subway, and mechanics belonging to Transport Union Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia walked off the job, idling a significant portion of southeastern Philadelphia’s transit service affecting 450,000 riders per day and having significant negative economic and safety implications.
Well, at least they were kind enough to honor the wishes of elected officials who, according to published reports, asked them not to go on strike while the World Series was in town. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that the Governor himself noted that a strike during the Series would give the City "a little bit of a black eye" while national attention was focused on the City. Perhaps he had fear of another "the Bronx is burning" moment occurring.
So now residents of Philadelphia and the southeast corner can take consolation in the fact that people around the nation aren’t tuned into the imbalance of power that exists in Pennsylvania in regards to its transit unions. They hold all of the cards and can shut the system down to get what they want. It just happened four years ago in Philadelphia when the system was idled for a week. It has come precariously close here in Pittsburgh until the intervention of elected officials and national unions prevented a strike, only by caving in to union demands.
Pennsylvania needs to get out of the small minority of states that allow transit workers to go on strike. That likely won’t happen. So here’s what should be done: the Governor’s own Transportation Funding and Reform Commission report from three years ago said that SEPTA (and PAT) should be required to "evaluate competitive contracting" in transit service "at least one every four years in concert with the expiration of labor contracts". That would allow private operators to bid and compete against the public sector unions for the right to provide service. Not surprisingly, the Transit Workers Union wants to try to erase provisions in the current labor contract that allow for outside contractors to do repair and maintenance work on vehicles.
How outrageous! TWU workers want it all and then some. Consider that the state legislature just permitted Philadelphia to increase its sales tax another point in order to fund its anemic pensions, much of which is likely a result of over-promises to unions. For a City that has now accounted for a significant share of all transit strikes since 2000, the Governor does not need to worry about the City getting a black eye-it already has one.