Jobs & Service vs. Jobs & Service

Yesterday, I attended the looooong and crowded MTC meeting addressing the funding of the Oakland Airport Connector (at one point I was literally edged out of the main auditorium onto the outside patio).  I wrote an article about it on Oakland Local and wanted to make a few comments.

Unlike most who showed up I went in without an absolute preconceived advocacy position, though I have to admit I was leaning against the OAC, for all the reasons opponents cited.

Then I started talking with layed-off workers.  Some of them haven’t worked in many months, some have lost their health insurance and homes or soon will.  It is hard to talk with someone and tell them, “No, this project in which you place so much hope, it’s not a good idea.”  These are people with skills and needs, but can’t get work because there is little construction going on.

Some construction union members criticized the opponents of the OAC–in terms of class, not race.  I heard things like, “How many of them are out of work?” and “They’re going to go back to their fancy offices.”  I had the sense that they felt the opponents were affluent non-profit or agency workers with a good job.  There also seemed to be quite a  bit of misinformation.  They expressed the belief that the opponents want people to have jobs at any cost, even low-paying ones without benefits, whereas they stood for union jobs with a living wage and benefits where they could actually live here and support a family.

I realized that the scramble for resources puts people at each others throats.  How can it be both sides are shouting, “Save jobs!”    It prompts the question: “”Which jobs?” And “What type of service and for whom?” These are the things that are really being decided.

One thing that struck me was the lack of concrete data discussed.  One side cites 2500-5200 jobs to be created.  The other side says 200-689.  Damn! There’s a lot of wiggle room between 200 to 5200!  Which is it?  I lean towards the conservative number–job-creation stats are always overblown.  Plus, BART’s own number submitted in its application to FTA was in the 600 range.  Chris Daly bluntly pointed out that a lot of the promised jobs simply won’t be there.  I saw this when I investigated the so-called green jobs revolution.  Then there is the unknown number of jobs to be lost among all the regional transit agencies in the coming months.  I wish someone would estimate that number for me.

In fact, BART itself–yes, that BART that is the leading advocate for OAC and against redirecting funds back to itself for operations–today is considering additional fare hikes, parking surcharges, and laying off over 70 people by June.

Apart from jobs, the wider public impact of agency service cuts and increased fares does disproportionately affect lower-income people.  If you can’t rely on or afford that bus to get to the doctor’s appointment, to the grocery store, or to school, that’s a significant social equity problem that ultimately weakens our commonwealth.  Not to mention the environmental & social impacts of reducing public transit options, putting more cars on the road.

But OAC proponents, though perhaps sympathetic to those plights, don’t really see the direct connection or see it as a separate issue.  I appreciate the argument that there is difference between capital investment and on-going operating costs.  Yet, the $500 million price-tag for the OAC seems high for a bit of  “progress” while BART can’t pay their bills to operate.  I also appreciate the argument that ARRA funds (aka stimulus money) is legislated primarily for new local job creation for “shovel-ready” projects.  Yet, saving current good jobs seems just as important (redirecting could also create new jobs, though it is unclear how many).

It is also curious that there is only a 25% local hire agreement and that a Colorado-based firm was awarded one of the main contracts and an Austrian company is charged with actually operating it when built.  Even this 25% local hire agreement has been called into question.

It is interesting that Mayor Ron Dellums, Rep. Barbara Lee, & BART Board Member Carol Ward Allen–all black politicians or public servants with a history of civil rights commitment–are in support of OAC.   Allen said she resented Title VI civil rights issues being used to stall the project.  Others echoed that sentiment and suggested the groups that brought the case to the FTA were doing it disingenuously.  I don’t agree–I believe the motives are benign and the concerns authentic.

At the end of the day, it serves no one to enter into a game of “Who supports civil right more authentically?”  From my observation, both the union workers for the OAC and the residents and agency reps against the OAC (or at least for redirecting funds) represented a diverse racial demographic and both have legitimate concerns.

Both sides invoke jobs.  Both side in fact invoke equity and minority representation. Both sides invoke Oakland’s long-term well-being. It’s just that they are looking at distinct non-overlapping parts of the whole picture.  The OAC folks see a project that builds infrastructure, brings local jobs, and beneficially impacts the region economically for years to come.  There’s  some truth to that.  The opponents see an oversold high-price luxury project, that once built will overwhelmingly serve a more affluent flying class and meanwhile will take badly needed resources away from services that low-income and minority communities rely on daily. There’s truth to that.

As I pointed out in my article, “The lack of transportation resources in the current economic landscape has pitted jobs and services against other jobs and services, pitted operations against capital investment, and pitted one project in one city against many projects across 9 Bay Area counties.  It’s making for many uncomfortable decision-making on the part of MTC and other public transit agencies.”

There’s no simple answer in an economic environment like this.  So, on occasion, I try to find that elusive silver lining–what can we learn from this?  Well, first I wish that state and federal politicians could sit in on more meetings like this and hear testimony from the public to get some idea of what is really going on in our communities. People are hurting.  Agencies are hurting.

Then, I would urge organizations like Transform (full disclosure–I worked with them for a short while) and Urban Habitat and union workers on both sides (carpenters, engineers, bus drivers, transit mechanics, etc.) to come to a realization that in fact they have a lot of aims and values in common.

As a few pointed out during the hearing, Sacramento is where the fight should be.  All the energy, fear, resources should also be pooled more often to bring the messages to state legislators and the governor.  Indeed, the state of California has drained and even stolen local transit agency funds.  And there is also an argument to be made that Washington has stolen state funds (CA pays out more in taxes than it receives compared to other, smaller states).  But these fights are more abstract, dig into deeper root causes, and harder to rally the troops around.  It’s a lot easier for unions to rally their folks to show up at a local downtown meeting than to address either local regressive revenue streams or deeper state budget issues.

Until those deeper issues are confronted and aggressively organized around, the never-ending spiral of fare hikes and service cuts–along with community members tense and at odds with each other–will continue to spin us in circles. Minor battle victories will be celebrated on either side from time to time.

But do we want minor victories or do we want to change the landscape on which the battles are fought?


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