A Response to Tony Saper

Sorting Out What to Defend and What to Replace
by Bill Onasch

Tony Saper, an ATA bus driver, long time transit advocate, and Labor Party activist, has stirred up all these groups with an opinion piece published in the Kansas City Star. He says this about the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (ATA) "By any measure, this 37-year experiment in regional public transit is an abysmal failure." He calls for rejection of Proposition B which would provide additional transit funds through increased sales and gasoline taxes. Saper presents as an alternative "It is time for Missouri and Kansas legislators to dispose of the failed ATA and bring in the new Heart of America Regional Transit system created for the 21st century."

Is the ATA a Failure?
Like many questions in life this can't be answered with a simple yes or no. I would agree with almost all of Saper's criticisms of the ATA—as far as they go. Certainly ATA management has presided over a decline that probably earns us the award of worst major city transit system. The history of ATA management has been marked by political cronyism, occasional corruption, and lots of incompetence.

But the ATA is much more than its so-called "management." The ATA is also a skilled, dedicated work force of drivers, maintenance, clerical workers and transit professionals—who by and large have done a good job with what they've been given to work with. Along with its material resources of hundreds of buses, maintenance facilities, etc., the ATA is clearly the logical foundation for any improved transit system.

This balanced assessment is crucial. Saper mentions that Johnson County gave up on the ATA and established their own system. But Johnson County's motivation for this was to reduce labor costs. They didn't like the ATA's "costly" union contract. They privatized their transit—which led to even worse service, charging users even higher fares.

Certainly we should criticize ATA management when appropriate. But simply bad mouthing the ATA as an institution can make it harder to get public support for adequate transit funding and can provide ammunition to those who would like to dump the Metro's "costly" union work force altogether—and start over with an all part-time, low wage, no benefits work force.

Who Should We Trust?
Saper says "It is time for Missouri and Kansas to replace the failed ATA with a high profile, regional-transit system with directly elected leadership..." The Labor Party has long called for electing commissioners. But he goes on to say "It is time for Missouri and Kansas legislators to dispose of the failed ATA and bring in the new Heart of America Regional Transit system created for the 21st century."

There's two things wrong here, in my opinion. First off I don't see how we can, at this time, expect the legislators to take such progressive action. For the most part these legislators are even more corrupt and incompetent than ATA management. Their record on transit is pretty dismal and democratic community control is not even on their radar screen. Getting democratic control over transit is bound up with broader working class and community struggles to make government work for us. This is a long-term battle and, unfortunately, we shouldn't expect any victories soon.

We should of course offer a vision of the way things should be. But we must be careful not to confuse our hopeful vision with the unpleasant options actually available. The short term choice is not ATA versus a democratically elected transit authority. The collapse or replacement of the ATA in our current political climate would only mean disaster for our present transit system and its work force.

My other major criticism is along similar lines. Saper writes "The citizen-based Regional Transit Alliance has recommended creation of a system that would be known as the Heart of America Regional Transit.

"The high profile of the Heart of America Regional Transit system will make it possible to attract the best of metrowide political leadership and the highest level of skilled management from throughout the country."

The fact of the matter is that this system, code named HART, is at best a vague concept. It is being developed by the Mid America Regional Council (MARC) as well as the Regional Transit Alliance (RTA).

MARC is the institution that presided over the disastrous urban sprawl in our area that is responsible for the failures in transit—and many other social and economic areas as well. They have long been part of the problem and I'm far from convinced that they are now part of the solution.

The RTA was supposed to be a community force for transit advocacy. In reality its gatherings and leadership are largely dominated by the same Suits you will find at MARC meetings. There has been little community involvement. The RTA self-appointed leaders early on consciously decided to exclude representatives of transit labor from the policy making bodies.

I'm not sure just who constitutes the "best of metrowide political leadership" Saper expects to be attracted to HART. The only forces I see that have a genuine ongoing commitment to transit are ATU Local 1287, the Sierra Club, and the Labor Party. All three have potential to win support in the community that can influence, for whatever motives, metrowide political leaders. But this potential is as yet far from realization. Helping these organizations to turn outward as an independent force, not just the tail of initiatives taken by others, is the next indicated step, in my view.

Proposition B
On August 6 Missouri voters will be given a choice of approving increases in gasoline and sales taxes, mainly to pay for work on the state's disgraceful roads and bridges, with a little bit going to transit.

This is not an easy decision. There are some sound arguments for opposing the increase. The burden of these taxes fall mainly on the working class and family farmers who are already saddled with a lot of such regressive taxation.

But the reality in today's political setup is that rejection of Proposition B will probably guarantee further deterioration of infrastructure, and huge cuts in transit service, for a long time to come.

It's a lose-lose situation for the working class.

Last year the Labor Party declined to endorse a sales tax increase for light rail in Kansas City. The reasoning then was fairly clear. The proposal was really a subsidized development plan that didn't advance transit.

Proposition B is different in that part of the money would be used for basic transit operation and capital spending. The Labor Party has taken no position this time around.

While I can certainly understand Saper's opposition I find one of his formulations disturbing. He says "Clearly voters don't want to vote a tax on themselves for something they cannot use, provided by an entity that they do not and cannot trust."

I can't say that I trust any of the entities that collect taxes from me. Nearly all of the politicians and bureaucrats in charge of these entities were put there by the rich and working people usually get the short end of the stick from them.

I'm not given many direct choices about how most of my tax money is spent. I certainly would have voted against accumulating enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet a few hundred times over. I would not have assented to giving tax money to lawyers to pay for their offices. But I never see such options. I only get to vote on things like schools, roads, and transit.

I don't have any school age children—so why should I pay school tax? I voluntarily pay school tax because I recognize that it's in society's best interest to have everyone educated. And while I understand that throwing money at the schools won't necessarily educate kids I also understand that cutting off their funds would make the situation even worse. We're not going to change education or transportation policies for the better by starving their budgets.

We need to rejuvenate public service as a whole. We all need to support useful services regardless of whether we personally use them. I think we can make a convincing case for why all tax payers should support greatly expanded transit—even if they never personally ride the bus.

My response to Tony Saper is considerably longer than his original article, as published. This length does not reflect our level of disagreement. We are, in fact, in basic agreement, I think, on most transit issues and have collaborated on these issues for a long time. But these issues are both broad and complex. We need a thorough and frank discussion. If for nothing else we should thank Tony Saper for provoking such response.