Quietly — almost meekly — Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) executive Sherrie Fisher put the County Board of Supervisors on notice that the sky was poised to fall on bus riders throughout the South Coast because of massive federal transportation funding cuts now looming. Fisher made her remarks along with all other members of the public seeking to raise issues not on the agenda. “I’m not here with my hand out,” Fisher said. “I’m here to talk about a funding crisis.” Fisher invited the supervisors to a major public hearing the MTD is holding July 24 to address the problem.
MTD has already been denied $2.3 million in federal funds this year and is scheduled to lose another $2.3 million later this year. That’s roughly 20 percent of the bus district’s total operating budget. Precipitating the crisis — which could cost about 50 drivers their jobs and cut services by 30 percent — is a complex conflict involving the state’s pension reform act passed last year; the Teamsters, which represents bus drivers; and the Department of Labor, which has to ensure that no federal dollars are sent to agencies violating the collective bargaining process with their unions. The pension reform act mandates that all municipal entities — like MTD — require their employees pay a greater amount into their pension funds. The Teamsters objected, arguing that such a change would have to first be negotiated at the bargaining table. When the union noted its objections to the Department of Labor, that department put federal transit dollars earmarked for MTD on ice.
Santa Barbara is hardly unique in its predicament; $2 billion in federal transit dollars earmarked for other California transit agencies have been frozen, too. Three weeks ago, Rep. Lois Capps arranged a conference call between MTD, the Teamsters, and the Department of Labor — MTD had not been able to get anyone from the Labor Department on the phone prior — but nothing, Fisher lamented, has happened since. The only solution on the horizon, she said, was AB 160, a bill in the State Legislature that would exempt transit agencies from the pension reform act. That bill, however, is stalled in committee and may not make it out.
“The sky is about to fall. This is a potentially massive disaster for local transit agencies,” he said.
Assemblymember Das Williams said he supports the bill because of the stakes involved. “The sky is about to fall. This is a potentially massive disaster for local transit agencies,” he said. For transit-dependent riders, Williams said, the consequences are immediate. But for people concerned about traffic congestion and air pollution, he added, the impacts are equally significant. Williams stressed that whatever happens, the Department of Labor should not return money earmarked for MTD back to the general treasury.