Bay Area transit leaders, unions butt heads on safety of public transit
A VTA Blue Line train travels through downtown San Jose. Photo by Katie Lauer.

A plan to address safety for public transit workers that is drawing harsh union criticism faces more scrutiny next week as transit leaders continue efforts to get people back on the roads during COVID-19.

James Lindsay, international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said five members have died across California in the past two months. He took issue with a plan approved last month by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that he says would not protect employees.

The union is demanding stricter protocols, such as providing masks to passengers, hazard pay and COVID-19 testing.

“This is outrageous,” Lindsay said. “We will fight every transit agency that decides to implement this plan, and under our contracts, we have the right to shut service down because of safety.”

The MTC, which oversees 27 transit agencies across nine counties, voted Aug. 26 to continue development of safety plans and provide monthly reports.

The “Riding Together: Bay Area Healthy Transit Plan” is a 33-page booklet of vague and loose requirements, including social distancing protocols of only 3 feet, masks provided by riders themselves and “quiet rides,” promoted to minimize transmissions from talking loudly.

The MTC stood firm in not wanting to assume the ability to enforce standards, which members said is beyond the scope of their responsibilities. Instead, they agreed to advise agencies to follow state standards, which slightly increase protections, including further social distance protocols.

More work will continue when the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force meets again 1 p.m. on Sept. 14, according to Commissioner Jim Spering, who chaired the panel that drafted the Healthy Transit Plan. Spering is joined on the 30-member task force by other high-ranking public officials, including Valley Transportation Authority General Manager Nuria Fernandez and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese.

“This is a first step, this plan is going to get developed,” Spering said. “It’s not that we don’t hear what you’re saying … it’s just how do we implement what they’re asking for? We need to be realistic about how we can go forward.”

Thousands of petition signatures and a list of 10 demands outline the asks from transit workers and advocates, including accessible hand sanitizer and occupancy limits to help protect riders and drivers, as well as stricter oversight for compliance with funding on the line for agencies that don’t follow health standards.

The argument is that one agency could infect the others if expectations aren’t met uniformly, especially as many riders make several transit connections across the Bay Area. A VTA bus driver named JP said the plan won’t prevent COVID-19 infections if the MTC maintains a laissez-faire attitude.

“When you say stay in your lane, that’s ridiculous. Your lane is safety for all Bay Area transit,” JP said. “If the agencies don’t comply, you should pull their funding — they have to be held accountable.”

John Courtney, ATU Local 265 president, said many drivers are still disrobing outside their homes at the end of the workday to minimize the risk of exposing their families to the coronavirus — a risk that would decrease if masks, gloves, sanitizer and shields were required for all.

Courtney said the issue of oversight remains on how the CARES Act funds will continue to prioritize service and frontline worker and rider safety.

Funding from the federal CARES Act can cover a host of expenses, including lost fare box revenue, hazard pay, cleaning supplies, payroll costs, taxes, employee time off and capital projects, such as bus replacements.

Out of a $25 billion pot for transit agencies nationwide, the Bay Area received $1.3 billion, which was assigned by the MTC. That money will be overseen by the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force.

VTA received $141 million, a sum Courtney said is low because fare box recovery is higher in the Bay Area and other areas with high-income earners. In the first of two CARES Act payments, VTA received the fourth highest award, behind BART, San Francisco Muni and AC Transit.

In the beginning, CARES funding kept trains, buses and ferries running for essential workers. Then, those dollars helped secure PPE amid broken supply chains and transit vehicle cleanings, especially as concerns mounted over coronavirus transmission on solid surfaces.

Now, Courtney said ongoing fiscal accountability is needed as coronavirus cases continue to surge. It’s not an unreasonable concern as a Florida agency recently used federal money to purchase trash cans.

Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty agreed funding should be withheld from non-compliant transit agencies.

The MTC adopted the safety plan in a 13-0-2 vote. Commissioners Nick Josefowitz and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf abstained.

Commissioner Gina Papan, who is a Millbrae councilmember, suggested attaching the list of demands from union members and front line workers, and encouraging each individual transit boards to follow those.

“This is not the end all,” Papan said. “We expect more and we expect it from those providers and agencies.”

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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