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Privatization Edges On : Settlement of transit strike leaves key government innovation intact

August 07, 1994

Only the commuters were the clear winners when the strike against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ended last week. But in the long run the biggest winners could be taxpayers, because the strike--while painful and probably unnecessary--did not stop the necessary movement toward privatization in public transit.

For nearly two weeks, many thousands of Los Angeles-area commuters faced a drive into work that was even tougher than normal. With service cut to a bare minimum by the agency that runs both the region's biggest bus fleet and a growing subway and trolley system, many commuters had been forced to find alternative ways to get around. If they opted for cars, that added to the already daunting congestion on many local highways. Anyone who faced that traffic had to cheer the settlement reached Tuesday between MTA and the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing MTA mechanics.

As for the two protagonists in that unfortunate standoff, neither got everything it wanted. Which leads to the obvious question: Was this strike necessary? After all, the two unions representing MTA drivers and clerks reached agreement on new contracts without a strike.

The ATU unfortunately felt a need to be especially militant this year because of the recent layoffs of some MTA mechanics. The union did win an agreement that there will be no more layoffs of ATU members. But the MTA got the union to agree to participate in a joint committee to review bids for subcontracting out MTA services to the private sector. Given the hard line ATU took against any contracting out, that was no small concession.

It's important because Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and other officials on the MTA governing board want to press forward with privatization of transit services as a means of saving money. They point with justification to the less costly, but popular, bus service provided in the San Gabriel Valley by Foothill Transit, a private operator that began taking over bus lines there in 1988 and is now the second-largest transit operator in the county. Significantly, MTA's new contract with the drivers' union allows for the transfer of more bus lines to private operators. So the useful trend continues--as it should.

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