Action Center

The People on the Bus

By Maureen Turner
Valley Advocate 

 

Richard Gardner knows as well as anyone the complaints and frustrations of people who use public buses. He drives for the PVTA, on a route that passes through the center of Springfield into Indian Orchard and then Ludlow.

Bus drivers are on the front line in mass transit battles, the foot soldiers who bear the brunt of riders' grievances. "We get attacked a lot," Gardner said—by riders upset about the cost of their fare ($1.25 for teens and adults), about overcrowded buses, about limited routes and schedules (Gardner's own route, the Blue 6, doesn't run on Sundays or holidays).

"Riders have understandable frustration," said Gardner, who is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 448, the drivers' labor union. Drivers, he said, try to explain to passengers that those problems are beyond their control. "We can't do anything about it. We tell people it's all about funding."

Now the union is also telling riders about an effort that would give a collective voice to their concerns—concerns, Gardner said, that are shared by bus drivers as well. Together with local labor and community groups, ATU Local 448 is working to establish a local bus riders' union, through which they could fight their common battles together.

"That would ease a lot of confrontations that drivers have with riders," Gardner said. It might also draw more attention from legislators and policymakers than the drivers' union alone could draw.

The bus riders' union is still in its early stages, and is looking to similar efforts in other cities for inspiration. That includes Boston's T Riders Union, formed in 2000 to push the MBTA for better service, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which account for a large percentage of public transit users. That union is calling on the MBTA for more reliable service, more night and weekend service, and more buses to relieve overcrowding.

Those items seems likely to show up on the wish list of the budding PVTA riders' union, too. While the union is leading the campaign, the effort draws together a number of local community groups whose members are directly affected by public transit issues, including Western Mass. Jobs With Justice, Arise for Social Justice, and the Mass. Senior Action Council.

At the heart of many of the riders' and drivers' concerns is federal funding for public transit—or lack thereof. This summer, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives proposed a six-year public transportation and highway funding bill of $230 billion—$56 billion less than the last transportation bill, which expired in 2009, and $326 billion less than the figure proposed by the Obama administration. Since its expiration in 2009, Congress has approved several extensions of the bill.

On Sept. 20—10 days before the current extension was to expire—public transit unions and community groups organized a national "Don't X Out Public Transportation Day," which included a demonstration by Springfield's Main Street bus terminal. The proposed cuts, said the local organizers, "would lead to service delays, overcrowding, fare increases, and cutbacks to the number of vehicles running, leading to longer wait times. These cuts would have a severe effect on transit authorities like the PVTA, as well as the entire country's ability to create and sustain jobs—further hampering efforts to stimulate and grow the national economy."

A few days before the protest, Congress passed a six-month extension of the existing bill, keeping funding at its current level through next March. (At the same time, lawmakers also approved a funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration through January, avoiding, for the time at least, the possibility of another FAA shutdown. Last summer, the FAA was forced to partially shut down for two weeks, a political nightmare that cost the federal government a reported $400 million in uncollected taxes on airplane tickets.)

While lawmakers haggle over how much money to spend on public transit, advocates are also calling for more flexibility in the ways that money can be used. Transit agencies can only use that federal money for capital expenses, such as new buses, not for operating expenses, which would allow them to hire more drivers and expand routes, for instance. The transportation bill extension, Gardner said, "buys us time, but after that we'll be in the same position again."

For information on the bus riders' union, contact Richard Gardner at 413-732-8041, or rgardner@atulocal448.com.