DUCK ’N’ COVER: At a certain point, meteor fatigue invariably sets in. There are only so many you can dodge before your adrenal glands are shot. By my estimation, the planet managed to dodge more than a few incoming asteroids earlier this year. Initially, I felt great relief. But not for long. Then we had the pressure-cooker bombers, school shooters, wildfires run amok, and all the run-of-the-mill earthquakes. Five people shot to death by a whack job who concluded his rampage at Santa Monica City College? Ho-hum. Don’t bother me unless kids are killed or there are double-digit body counts. The federal government’s been secretly spying on its own citizens by strip mining our phone records? I would hope so. As a taxpayer, I wouldn’t feel I was getting my money’s worth if my constitutional rights weren’t being violated.
In this cataclysmic vein, I’m sorry to report the late, great Satchel Paige got it wrong when he famously cautioned, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” It already has. I say this having attended this week’s meeting held by the Development Committee of the Metropolitan Transit District Board of Directors, where MTD staff and boardmembers outlined various doomsday scenarios for cutting bus service by 30 percent and laying off 50 of the district’s 150 bus drivers. These cuts will take place if the district and the feds can’t resolve a gratuitously and egregiously pointless dispute over pension reform that for the time being has left the bus service without $4.6 million in federal transportation grants that the district has received for the past 23 years to subsidize daily operations. While these cuts may not sound like the end of the world — particularly if you drive a car — they will definitely feel like it, if and when they are enacted.
To put it succinctly, MTD is looking at gutting and cutting five bus routes outright, eliminating Saturday service on 10 and Sunday service on 11. Gone will be the express buses linking Carpinteria to Santa Barbara and City College to UCSB. Gone will be the shuttle service linking I.V. with the Camino Real Marketplace and, likewise, Santa Barbara’s wonderfully convenient crosstown shuttle linking Eastside and Westside neighborhoods with downtown Santa Barbara. The buses left standing will run less frequently, be more crowded, and take longer to get to where they’re going. Riders will have to walk farther to get them and wait longer to get on them. Currently, MTD provides 200,000 hours of transit service a year. If the cuts go through as proposed, 60,000 of those will be cut. Bus routes that now provide two million rides a year will be violently folded, mutilated, or otherwise spindled. This is not tweakage; this is hackage and hewage — amputation with a butter knife, decapitation by a hacksaw.
For Santa Barbara’s sizable population of families who rely on mass transit, the disruption to their daily lives will be huge. MTD administrators took pains to minimize cuts to bus lines that serve the working poor, students, the disabled, and the elderly. They tried not to strand outposts of the empire, like Carpinteria, already landlocked by gridlock. But there will be no shortage of pain. Those who can will find other means; those who can’t will be screwed. One thing’s for certain; there will be a lot more cars on the road. At intersections already straining under the load, congestion will get a lot worse.
Responsible for this havoc is Governor Jerry Brown, who for all the right reasons enacted a landmark pension-reform bill last September that’s now having all kinds of unintended consequences. Worried that the state’s two main public-employee pensions were underfunded to the tune of $165 billion, Brown rammed a bill through the Legislature that increases the retirement age from 55 to 67 and requires new employees to pay considerably more into their own retirement plans than existing workers now do. This latter provision is known as a “two-tiered system.” Because MTD is a state-chartered transit district, the new pension law applies to its drivers — represented by Teamsters Local 186 — even though they do not work for the state and even though their pension fund is not part of either state system. In fact, the Teamsters’ pension funds are quite healthy and overseen by the federal government.
As a matter of religious principle, the Teamsters are implacably opposed to the “two-tier” approach. Given the structural technicalities of how the Teamsters’ pension fund was created 50 years ago, union officials say it’s legally impossible for it to accommodate a two-tier approach. In any case, when the Department of Transportation prepared to send MTD the first of its two $2.3 million installments, it first had to clear it with the Department of Labor, which in turn asked the Teamsters if everything was cool. In reply, the Teamsters filed a notice of objection, stating that the unilateral imposition of Jerry Brown’s pension reform provisions violated the sanctity of the collective bargaining process. With that, everything came to a screeching halt. Throughout California, 18 other transit districts are going through the same problem. As a result, there’s $2 billion in federal transportation dollars that’s not going to local transit providers. Since February, when the problem first broke, MTD has been unable to get anyone in authority at the Department of Labor on the phone. The good news is that this Friday, MTD and the Teamsters have managed to schedule — finally — a joint conference with the Department of Labor to argue that the first $2.3 million installment should be dispersed because its release date preceded the day Brown’s pension reform bill went into effect. The bad news is that the Labor Department moves slowly and has a big backlog. If no fix is forthcoming, the cuts could commence as early as October 1. When that happens, things will get ugly fast, and we’ll all be praying for an errant meteor to put us out of our misery.