Metro keeps popping up in the news: the nearly averted cuts in bus service last year, the ongoing contract negotiations and arbitration with bus drivers, the recent March 1 fare increase. Each story has a common theme — Metro needs more revenue.
But a new story is emerging now. Local activists with Stop Veolia Seattle have discovered that in the midst of a loud funding crisis, Metro quietly agreed to a $7 million per year cost increase to the contract it holds with French multinational union-buster and privatizer of public services Veolia/Transdev.
Notorious for union-busting on four continents, in 2012 alone Veolia was found guilty of illegal anti-union tactics in Arizona, Nevada and Connecticut.
As one of the leading privatizers, globally, of essential public services like water, transportation, trash and energy, Veolia is in the business of turning public investments into private profit. Repeatedly, Veolia has been found guilty of price gouging the public, while under- investing in public infrastructure and jeopardizing public health and safety.
In 2008, in the midst of a heated battle with labor, King County Metro handed Veolia/Transdev a contract for 70 percent of the operation of our Metro Access paratransit bus service for people with disabilities and the elderly. One-hundred-forty unionized drivers lost their jobs or took pay cuts. Poor working conditions include insufficient breaks and “flex-time” scheduling,
which means drivers don’t know what hours they will work, or if they are even working at all, until the day they are scheduled to work. Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond is quoted in the Seattle Times saying that the County would save $1 million annually as a result of this contract.
So why did Metro approve a change to the contract that increased costs by at least $7 million annually until 2018?
This is one of the questions that King County Councilmembers posed to Executive Dow Constantine in a letter dated March 18. This follows a unanimous September 2014 resolution by the Martin Luther King County Labor Council calling upon the county to end the contract and bring Access in-house.
Access users have been reporting problems with the Access service for a long time, but since Veolia took over, the service has only gotten worse. Riders report longer waits for pickups, and that inefficient routes can add an extra 30 to 60 minutes or more on top of someone’s wait time.
The March 1 fare increases hit Access users the hardest. Standard, youth, senior and disabled fares all went up 25 cents, while Access fares went up by 50 cents, from $1.25 to $1.75, an increase of 40 percent; the cost of a monthly pass increased by $17. This represents a $350,000 increase in revenue to Metro skimmed from disabled and elderly Access users for a service that is far from meeting their basic transportation needs.
Lost wages for Access drivers totaled an estimated $1,115,520 in the first year that Veolia took over. This represents a $7,968 annual salary cut for 140 drivers. It is likely that these lost wages are the $1 million that Desmond referred to as “savings” from selecting union-busting Veolia.
But while recent Metro fare increases (expected to bring in an additional $6 million a year) and lost wages were the subject of public debate, Metro quietly approved a contract change that allowed annual costs for paratransit to rise $7.3 million to $30.3 million per year until the contract expires in 2018.
Even this is not the upper limit: A clause in the contract change notes, “actual contract amount will depend on the service range and number of service hours delivered.”
And so it goes that here in King County we have our own story of austerity measures stripping labor and raising costs for the poor, while giving behemoth corporations handouts from our public coffers.
Constantine must order an audit immediately in order to show he’s taking residents and the Council’s concerns seriously.
Stop Veolia Seattle is also insisting that Constantine meet demands of Access users to achieve a more reliable, direct and timely service, and that Metro work with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 to bring Access bus service in-house.
Our Access service is broken, and getting rid of Veolia/Transdev is the first step towards fixing it. Our public dollars should be invested in King County and not handed over to a scavenging union-busting corporation.