By Annie Lloyd
Since our last edition of the People’s Transit Bulletin on March 9, COVID-19 cases in Alameda County have sunk to levels not seen since before the winter surge. The Bay Area is opening back up and vaccinations are increasing. But we shouldn’t be complacent: we need to demand that safety remain a priority. Only a third of Bay Area residents are fully vaccinated, and many operators have yet to receive their shots. Rather than throw caution to the wind, we will keep fighting for safe transit conditions for transit workers and riders while the pandemic continues. This is especially important considering Gavin Newsom’s likely ill-advised decision to completely reopen the state on June 15.
The increased vaccinations and re-openings also demonstrate the crucial need to get buses back on the road, because increased service is the only solution for meeting the safety and service needs for workers and riders. AC Transit currently plans to return to pre-pandemic bus service in August 2022. This is far too late and will exacerbate the problem of passenger pass-ups and lack of passenger and operator safety on potentially crowded buses. Our goal is to push AC Transit to restore pre-pandemic service as soon as possible. But this is just the bare minimum, because a true recovery will require expanding service beyond the pre-pandemic norm.
Continue reading for recaps of the March AC Transit and Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) Board meetings.
AC Transit Board Meetings
For an in-depth explanation of the AC Transit Board, check out our first bulletin.
March 10, 2021
The board received an update on AC Transit Mobile, the agency’s official app. AC Transit released the app last fall, and the agency is still working on promotional campaigns, translations, and feature adjustments in the app. Currently it provides real-time bus updates and contactless payment options. President Elsa Ortiz expressed a desire to prioritize implementing emergency alerts and push notifications, and Director Walsh inquired into the capacity to include fare-capping and monthly pass purchases into the app.
For the final agenda item, the Board considered approving a three-year contract with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The Board last discussed the Sheriff’s contract in December 2020, when they voted on a three-month extension. At that meeting, Director Jovanka Beckles argued that the cost for the three-month extension was too high. Although the transit worker unions approved of contracting with the sheriff’s offices for security, Beckles asked whether it was possible to renegotiate the extensions. Director Jean Walsh argued that in the wake of months of Black Lives Matter uprisings, we should rethink the amount of money spent on policing. She then asked whether AC Transit staff could research whether services provided by the sheriff could be provided by AC Transit employees instead. Director Chris Peeples acknowledged controversy with the sheriffs’ departments regarding their relationships with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the management of jails, but he remained supportive of the contract extension. He mentioned how providing mental health training for bus operators would be a complicated and expensive process that also detracted from operators’ main responsibility. Ultimately, the contract extension passed.
Since then, despite the concerns brought up in December, the staff has conducted no further research on the Sheriff’s contract. The board was not even able to see the long-term contract they were voting on, which had a $9 million/year price tag.
Before the board discussed the vote, dozens of public commenters spoke up against the contract. For two hours, community members, transit workers, and local organizers raised concerns about the transparency of the contract, its price, the services the sheriff’s department ostensibly provides, and the legitimacy of having armed officers on transit in the first place. The commenters varied, with some pointing towards the sheriff’s department’s failure to ensure the safety they’re paid to provide, and others advocating for the total removal of the sheriff’s department from the AC Transit system. Many workers spoke up and were sympathetic towards the calls to remove policing, but also pointed out their urgent need to feel a sense of safety on their routes. Some commenters also pointed out a conflict of interest. Protective Services Manager Kerry Jackson, the staff member who prepared the report, had previously worked for the sheriff’s department for 24 years and received a pension from the department.
After public comment, the board discussed the contract. Director Diane Shaw wanted to see metrics on the types of calls and response times, as well as whether there have been efforts to address some issues without the use of law enforcement. Director Beckles concurred and also raised concerns about the price increase, because the 2018 contract cost $6.6 million/year. Director Peeples and President Ortiz were the most explicit in their support for the contract. While Directors Young, Williams, and Shaw were sympathetic towards some of the public comments, they ultimately expressed confidence in the contract. Only Directors Beckles and Walsh debated the merits of the contract itself. Director Beckles introduced an amended motion to approve the contract for one year instead of three. Any further extension of the contract would be revisited after performance metrics and other concerns had been addressed. The amended motion did not pass. The Board then voted on the original three-year contract, which passed. Directors Beckles and Walsh voted against it.
March 24, 2021
The Board heard a proposal to reduce social distancing on AC Transit buses after three weeks in the Red Zone, and to eliminate it entirely after three weeks in the Orange Zone (the second and third-most restrictive tier in Governor Newsom’s tier-based reopening system, respectively). The proposal emerged as a response to the high number of rider pass-ups, but it would pack more passengers onto the bus and render it impossible for riders to remain six feet from each other.
Vaccination rates are not high enough for this to be a safe solution, especially when the real solution is to put more buses on the road.
For over an hour, 25 public commenters spoke about the ill-advised plan and the need to guarantee safety on the buses. Sultana Adams, an AC Transit bus operator, pulled up the CDC’s safety guidelines during her comment to drive home the necessity of maintaining six feet of distance on buses. “This three-feet distancing doesn’t appear to be science or data driven at all, and why haven’t our county public health officers been contacted to determine if this move is even lawful? It seems to be a direct violation of the current ordinances that are in place,” she said. “Everyone’s saying we don’t have the money, so let’s just obliterate passenger and transit worker safety,” she continued, adding “I’m not willing to accept that.” She pointed to the $55 million of recovery funds that MTC approved for distribution to AC Transit, arguing forcefully that the Board use the money to increase service.
Other operators spoke about their need for safety as well, including transit workers from the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority Local 265. This inspiring show of solidarity demonstrated the high stakes of the proposal and the power of inter-agency organizing. Members of People’s Transit Alliance, the Voices for Public Transportation Coalition, and more also gave a strong show of support for the safety of workers and riders.
The board heard the labor and community concerns loud and clear, and no director accepted the proposal. Instead, Director Beckles made a motion for staff to come up with a plan to run more service while maintaining social distancing. Director Young made an amendment to the motion, asking staff to come up with a plan to reduce social distancing in 75 days (or later, depending on the state of the pandemic at that time). The motion passed.
Metropolitan Transportation Commission
MTC is a body of stipended appointees or salaried MTC leadership that oversees funding for transit-related services in the Bay Area. These include both public transit agencies (like AC Transit) and capital projects. Capital projects include the construction, acquisition, and rehabilitation of transit-related equipment and facilities. MTC has nearly all of the power to grant or deny funding to transit in the region.
March 24, 2021
Transit recovery and the future reliability and connectivity of the Bay Area’s transit system were the main themes of MTC’s March Board meeting.
The board received a breakdown of proposed funding allocations for the second phase of distributing Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSAA) funds. The first phase of disbursements happened in January, when the board made allocations based on immediate revenue shortfalls in the current fiscal year. The proposal for this round of funding determined each agency’s distribution amount on anticipated budget shortfalls, using 75% of the available funds. The remaining 25% of recovery funds were allocated based on each agency’s share of November 2020 ridership numbers. While some public comment addressed the likelihood that a ridership count would be an underestimation of need, the affected agencies expressed their support for the allocation. MTC approved the distribution, which provided AC Transit with $55 million in recovery funds.
The board then heard a recommendation to adopt a Support and Seek Amendments position on Assembly Bill 455: Bay Bridge Fast Forward Program. The bill, authored by Assembly Member Rob Bonta, would require the Bay Area Toll Authority to develop and execute plans to speed up carpool and bus travel on the Bay Bridge. The concerns about the bill as it is currently written include an overly ambitious scope and lack of clarity around the jurisdiction over which BATA has control. Public comment favored the bill, citing the excessive commute times on the Bay Bridge for bus riders. MTC voted to support and seek amendments on the bill.