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Labor and Transit Activists Lobby for New Transit Dollars from Proposed Bridge Toll Increase

Judy Goff, Executive Secretary-Treasurer, of the Central Labor Council of Alameda County, introduced and thanked Senator Don Perata (left) for his leadership in sponsoring bills such as SB 916

Wearing yellow t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Labor Keeps Transit Moving," a coalition of Bay Area labor unions and transit activists known as TransitWorks kicked off the rally for a one-dollar toll increase on state bridges to fund new transit projects. Labor leaders and rank and file met with Bay Area legislators and sought support for Senate Bill 916 by Senator Don Perata, which dedicates new toll revenues for BART, bus, rail, and ferry projects.

"Right now, important transit projects are on hold because of the budget deficit. We need to find new dollars for transit. By improving transit, our members will have more commute options," said Judy Goff, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Central Labor Council of Alameda.

Art Pulaski, Executive Secretary-Treasurer California Labor Federation (right), introduced Senator John Burton (at the podium), one of the co-authors to SB 915 and 916 and a friend of labor

Labor representatives from AC Transit, BART, Golden Gate Transit, Muni, and other transit agencies packed State Capitol conference rooms. They asked Bay Area legislators about traditional labor issues such as minimum wage laws and overtime laws. Adding transportation to their agenda, union officials told members of the legislature about the value of Senate Bill 916.

Water Transit Authority Board member and Inlandboatman’s Union Regional Director Marina Secchitano said that labor’s cooperative effort in Sacramento was unprecedented on this issue. Addressing a crowd of more than 200 labor representatives who volunteered for the trek to Sacramento, Ms. Secchitano said, "Our success depends on your enthusiasm. If we can keep this kind of momentum on SB 916, there’s nothing we can’t do to raise money for transit projects." The Inlandboatman’s Union (IBU) represents members on Bay Area ferries and it is the marine division of the powerful International Longshoremen’s Union (ILWU). Ms. Secchitano added that SB 915, a bill to expand the region’s ferry system, would also boost the Bay Area economy with new jobs for construction and transit unions.

Transportation and Land Use Coalition (TALC), a nonprofit environmental policy group dedicated to promoting smart growth, was one organizing force behind labor’s rally on Sacramento. TALC membership includes 90 Bay Area organizations. Stuart Cohen, TALC’s Executive Director, said "TransitWorks had a successful day in Sacramento. We enlisted the support of legislators who had previously been uninformed about the benefits of SB 916. The proposed bridge toll increase will cost less than the price of a small Peet’s coffee. In return, we could get a massive expansion of transit options, more carpooling, less congestion and better air quality. That is a real bargain."

Marina Secchitano, Inlandboatmans Union Regional Director and WTA Board Member ,and Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TALC, shared a celebratory moment over the success of the TransitWorks rally in Sacramento

Ms. Goff added, "The partnership between labor and transit activists reminds me of a similar partnership that formed to get the Port of Oakland dredged at a time when bureaucrats had the project paralyzed. Never underestimate the power of partnerships at the grass roots level."

Senator Don Perata, author of SB 916, met with the Alameda and Contra Costa County labor contingent. He said, "It’s remarkable to see any resistance to using toll money for transit. Either people are on the bridge and believe it will relieve the traffic they’re in, or they don’t use the bridge and don’t care." Joining Senator Perata in co-authoring the bill are Senators Tom Torlakson (D-Contra Costa) and President Pro Temp John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Assembly members Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), Gene Mullin (D-South San Francisco), and Patricia Wiggins (D-Vallejo).

A recent poll commissioned by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority (WTA) showed that 66% of voters would support a one-dollar toll increase to fund specific new transit projects that provide congestion relief. Of those polled, 82% said they want improved connections between BART, buses, ferries and rail. Voters in seven Bay Area counties are expected to have the final say on SB 916 when it appears on the March 2004 ballot.

Assembly member Herb Wesson, Speaker of the Assembly, greeted Labor representatives occupying the conference room next to his office

Senator Perata has also sponsored SB 915, which would expand the Bay Area’s ferry service by adding seven new ferry routes and enhancing service on all existing routes. SB 916 would provide partial funding for the WTA’s plan to add more boats in Oakland and Alameda services and start new routes in Berkeley and South San Francisco.

According to 1997 statistics, transportation is the most unionized sector of the workforce, where 36.2% of workers are organized. The breakdown of unionized transit workers is: 73.6% railroad; 36.4% urban transit workers; and 35.8% air transportation. Mobilizing the transit work force assures transit a seat at the table when it comes to making legislative decisions on funding transit projects.

"87% of Bay Area voters expect state bridge tolls will rise." —WTA Public Opinion Survey (January 2003)

Margaret Hanlon-Gradie, the Regional Director of the California-Federal AFL-CIO, explained that the State-Federal AFL-CIO are inclined to lend their support to issues that local unions have adopted. If the California Federation officially supports the transit-friendly bills, this could be good news for expanding Bay Area commute options. The California Federation holds sway with Southern California legislators, especially Democrats, who might not otherwise see the immediate benefit to their constituents in supporting bills that advance Bay Area transit projects.

Next Up: County Sales Tax Measures

In addition to Senator Perata’s bills, local unions are learning about two constitutional amendments that propose to lower the threshold of votes required to pass county sales tax measures for funding transit projects.

Assembly member Wilma Chan, seated at the head of the table, was one of many Bay Area legislators who met with labor representatives in Sacramento on March 18, 2003

Forty percent of the dollars currently being spent on transportation projects come from county sales tax measures. In the Bay Area, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Contra Costa Counties will be renewing their sales tax measures next year. Marin County is proposing a new sales tax measure.

SCA 2 (Torlakson) and ACA 7 (Dutra), would reduce the percentage of votes required to pass these transit sales tax measures from the current two-thirds requirement to either a 51% or 55% majority.

While most counties are capable of meeting a majority vote requirement, many counties cannot meet the stringent two-thirds vote required for passage of sales tax measures. Proponents of changing the vote requirement point out that education bonds benefit from only having to meet a 55% majority vote. An expansion of the regional ferry service will depend on a variety of funding sources, including sales tax funds. In particular, county sales tax funding in several counties is expected to pay for terminals, boats, and service. Getting these county sales tax measures passed will be essential to new ferry service where bridge toll revenues won’t fund the services.

Heidi Machen, WTA Public Affairs Officer, joined TransitWorks on their tour of Sacramento