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Subsidy express: Who gets a lift, and who does Sun Tran take for a ride?

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What the Devil won't tell you

Subsidy express: Who gets a lift, and who does Sun Tran take for a ride?

Myths continue to abound about bus strike and who can do what to whom

  • Paul Ingram/

The Sun Tran strike is essentially about the word "subsidy" and just how sympathetic the community is to both the drivers and the riders.

Face it, Sun Tran is the city of Tucson's big welfare program that takes from the rich to help out the poor.  

Questions follow. Is the budget more untouchable than the riders are important? Does the city value policy or service? Where should they draw the line with one for the benefit of the other? Where are the community's sympathies?

A day after the Arizona Daily Star ran a Tony Davis piece about the community of Bowie seeing its water disappear (making the journalism gods proud), the morning daily printed a front-page ad for Professional Transit Management, leaving no doubt where it stood on the issue, as the wall between editorial and hard news just melted away. 

It's tells a simple good and evil story: Sun Tran drivers — bad. Actually, it didn't even get into who is good but just recycled news and TV news already told folks about how half of Sun Tran bus drivers have maxed out their pay, stuck at an economically artificial limit set in the contract.

Or as the Star's 1A, above-the-fold Sunday headline put it, "Striking drivers earn top pay" (but don't use "earn" because that's a loaded word). That headline read a bit as if the union is asking for more than righteousness allows. Then the subhead tried to convince readers that bus drivers earn $61,000 a year because it includes their benefits. Try applying for a home loan including your benefits as your "full compensation" and have fun in prison.

The union is being greedy for wanting more money for (you gotta curl your lip like you just smelled something rot to say it right out loud) ... bus drivers. What's next? Will lunch ladies want to be able to afford cable?

From that flows the conclusion like the Colorado River to the Gulf of California: Bus riders aren't as important as holding a theoretical line against ... (curl lip) bus drivers.

Bus drivers in Tucson make less than the national average in the field but more than Tucson's median wage. So we're back to salary Schadenfreunde: "I don't have to make any money so long as everyone else is broke."

I just wonder if the local press understands that the median income will never rise if Tucsonans constantly bitch about who may exceed it.

I mean, no one is asking what Daily Star newsroom employees make with Lee Enterprise's stock at $1.87 a share — down from $43.45 back in 2005 — as the market finds the product's value at just four percent what it was a decade ago. They make what they can get management to pay them, as it should be.

I'm about to give you, dear readers, news involving Sun Tran: Hard figures that tell a story that may shock and amaze you, involving which riders are really subsidized by taxpayers. Yet the Star's story is so pivotal because it speaks to that very point: biases against a system serving the poor and employing experienced drivers who hold commercial licenses but instead are just ... bus drivers.

The Sun Tran subsidy is widely believed to be a function of how much Tucson wants to help the poor. The union's demands will require more tax dollars to address raises and safety concerns. Management's firm and not so final offers require none.

Give me my subsidy and get off my back!

So how badly bloated is Sun Tran's budget with hard-earned tax dollars from city residents and shoppers, to give people (aka unfortunately necessary collateral damage) a lift?

Let's start by setting our terms. Sun Tran is run by a private business, which does not make it a private business. Sun Tran is a public service — the same public service any other city has for the use of its residents and the benefit of its businesses.

No city transit service anywhere outside of parts of Asia recovers all of its expenses in revenues from fares — not even close. Breaking 50 percent is a minor miracle. Those Asian countries by the way aren't big on road construction or repair.

Through the powers of Google, we can see that Sun Tran in June had a subsidy of $2.72 a rider. We can also see Sun Tran's peer transit services were subsidized at $3.49 per rider. Yeah, see, the subsidy itself is meaningless unless it's related to something. No number stands on its own. The number 9 is not a news story any more than there is some magical maximum that someone is allowed to earn.

When reporting a story like the Sun Tran strike, it's important to give readers a sense of what is happening out there in the great big beyond to provide context.

So Sun Tran is subsidized at about 20 percent less than its peer services in places like Kansas City, Mo.; Fresno, Calif.; Omaha, Neb.; and Rochester, N.Y. (hometown shout out! Go Amerks!). 

That's not bad for operating what the Brookings Institute calls the fourth best bus system in the United States. It's kinda cool to have a service in Arizona that isn't absolutely atrocious. Or should we not have nice things?

Let's check out more of this subsidy, shall we: The No. 4 route down Speedway subsidized at $2.46 per rider; the No. 8 down Broadway gets $2.20 per rider; the 11 up Alvernon gets $1.78 per rider and the No. 6 down First Avenue past the Star newsroom on South Park Avenue and to the airport gets $1.86. Those are the cheap lines. The expensive lines in Sun Tran system run to Midvale Park at $6.63 per rider and along West Speedway and Pima Street at $5.53 a rider.

The smart money thinking of course is to eliminate "less-efficient" routes because the poor just need to find another way and Sun Tran should run like a bidness. Harrumph. You don't see the hard-working makers getting a subsidy from Sun Tran in places like Oro Valley, Tanque Verde, the Foothills and Rita Ranch do you? No, even though the poor keep stealing all their hard-earned lucre, these folks muster through on their own.

They don't need no stinking subsidy. Do they?


What if I told you that Sun Tran's express routes to the suburbs — meaning no stops for rabble — marinate in city subsidies to the point of engorgement?

Yeah, the Rita Ranch Express soaks in $12.77 per rider. The Tanque Verde Express slurps up $17.97 for a pair of wingtips. The Golf Links Express right through the heart of Republican Ward 4 rakes in $25.47 per rider. They all trail the 202X straight from Oro Valley down to Raytheon, subsidized to the anthemic tune of $25.98 per rider. That's per ride. Each way.

Moochers and takers! I'm sorry. Makers! No. Wait? What? The poor aren't the ones ripping us off?

In all, the express routes passengers average $14.54 per rider — more than six times the riders at bus stops they blow past because they have places to be and sun stroke is for the fast-food workers.

It costs Sun Tran $312,000 per month to run these routes, or $3.7 million per year. If you'd put those savings on the table two weeks ago, the strike would be over. The contractor has $2.2 million to work with and the union was asking for $5.7 million per year — there would be enough left over to buy Sun Tran GM Kate Riley and Teamsters chief negotiator Andy Marshall each killer Italian rides for jobs well done.

To find this, I Googled "Sun Tran subsidy," and found the bus service's monthly reports and a comprehensive system-wide analysis on the first damn page. Kicking the local media's ass is too easy when I'm the only one who apparently does online searches.

Is fare fair?

The 2014 analysis of Sun Tran presented by Veolia, the company that has since become Transdev, which owns Professional Transit Management, tells us more. 

On the fare side of the ledger, $0.64 per rider is really low and even though Tucson is broke that price can probably come up some. If the city wanted to get creative it could invest in the technology that would allow for "distance" or "zone-based" pricing that scores a lot higher on "farebox recovery" (industry slang I learned on the Googles). 

Tucson's farebox recovery ratio is 22.7 percent, meaning 22.7 percent of Sun Tran's budget is recouped at the point of sale. The number is not out of line with other cities that use flat rates for pricing. Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore and Portland are all pretty similar to Tucson in how much of their transit systems are paid by users. Other cities are well below that, including just about all of Texas.

Still, there may be room for higher fares, but Transdev's report warns that increasing the base rate won't get Tucson far because people are likely to drop the bus service or take fewer trips. The contractor points out that the discounts the city provides cut deeper than intended. Raising the cost of discounts would raise money better. 

Then of course we're worrying about a $3 subsidy for an elderly grandmother on a small Social Security check but give the Raytheon engineer on Calle Expensivo $14 to ride a bus to work.

The problem isn't the subsidy itself, it's how it's structured.

Today, Sun Tran gets a subsidy based on the whimsy and good humor of the City Council in any given year and hoping they don't succumb to Draconian vapors. It's a situation that also leads the Council to annually fret the subsidy, resembling the memory-challenged Dory from "Finding Nemo": seeing that thing again but always shocked it's there.

It's time to look at what Sun Tran actually costs at service levels the community needs and calculate in the price of a decent wage with raises so workers don't take a pay cut against inflation every year. Then find a clear and consistent way to pay for it. Councilman Steve Kozachik has raised the idea of a half-cent sales tax to pay for Sun Tran and road repair. That's a good place to start.

A clear and consistent funding source isn't an option now — so general fund subsidy it is.

Past strike activity shows Council can act

Believe it or not, I'm not in the tank for labor on this. The City Council was within its rights to tell the union in March, "Screw you, no more money is coming." Sun Tran's subsidy has jumped 66 percent ($18 million to $30 million) in six years, and the Council has held the line on public safety and parks.

Let's take a look at history, because the City Council needs to stop acting like its hands are tied. They're not.

In 1997, a Sun Tran strike ended when the City Council stepped in and said "We're not playing games" with the riders depending on the service, and promised to budget for raises the next year. They did. Labor wasn't happy with the result in 1998 and threatened a strike that never happened. The Council said before the contract was up: "You got your money. Get back to work." Ultimately, that's what happened.

Funny how it works.

In 2001, three Council members sought to intervene to end the strike that year but were blocked by Republican Mayor Bob Walkup and Republican Councilman Fred Ronstadt, joined by Democrats Carol West and Shirley Scott. The foursome was voting as a bloc at that time. The strike ended ... well, was there anything that happened in the middle of the 2001 strike that put weight into service over self? Hmm. Something between Sept. 5, 2001 and Sept. 17, 2001? I'm stumped ...

In 2007, Teamsters Local 104 threatened a strike again but postponed action as long as negotiations continued thereby averting a strike but well after the contract expired on Aug. 1 of that year.

So despite two strikes and two near-strikes in the past 18 years, the City Council didn't see a problem coming, and a month in are only now rushing to put out the statements long overdue to tell Sun Tran the money isn't coming. They helped create this mess and need to help fix it.

Appropriate appropriations

For Council members to pretend the budget that is sacrosanct is just silly.

A budget is at best a projection and at worst a prayer. Budgets require assumptions and when reality doesn't match, the budget gets changed.

The Council can, in fact, change the amount a contract is awarded at a later date. They are called change orders. They happen every Council meeting. I will grant you, this would be a monster change order, but they happen.

It's the difference between budgeting and appropriating. A budget is what you walk into a grocery store planning to pay for what's on your weekly shopping list. Appropriations are what you just paid with your debit card at the checkout, with those extra on-sale burgers added to the list. Sometimes they're different, no?

We are hearing there may be some movement within the Sun Tran contract because management is saving extra money on fuel, which is a perfect illustration of how crazy the position is that the Council would be setting a bad precedent by adding more money mid-year.

Say, for the sake of arguing, Sun Tran saves a million dollars on fuel this year. They take that money and give it to the drivers. Then fuel prices spike because, oh, I don't know, something crazy happens in the Middle East (a stretch, I know). Then the fuel money that went into labor's deal would be cut out of elsewhere. The Council would have to re-open the budget. 

There are always dollars not spent here, extra money over there and sometimes 20 percent of the projected general fund disappears forcing mid-year cuts. No one says "Oh, but why are they re-opening the budget" because shit changed.

I'm not going to argue it's a great precedent but how much of a precedent is it really when no other city service depends on a work force allowed to strike? The Teamsters have the Council a bit over a barrel other workers don't have handy.

Councilmembers Kozachik, Regina Romero and Karin Uhlich have come out against re-opening the budget, but they did it as individuals when that clarity is needed fully realized in the form of a motion to be seconded during a Council meeting.

This is my beef and it should be yours too. That labor's deal with Sun Tran was up July 31 was public knowledge. That the union was going to demand more money was a given. That they had the power to strike was obvious. That suffering through a prolonged strike would make the City Council look bad — to friend, foe and everyone but non-voters — should have been a foregone conclusion.

Uhlich in her weekly newsletter took folks to task for suggesting the city "woulda, coulda, shoulda" found a way out of the strike. Having been on the record woulda-coulda-shoulda-ing the Council into the dirt, I'd like to respond even though the woman has always been cool to me and I feel bad doing it.

If the Council woulda spoken loudly and clearly during budget sessions they coulda spoken with a single voice and sent strong messages to the union it shoulda understood. 

Woulda been nice. But then again, they're just ... bus drivers.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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