A Bit of Good News

I attended the City Council’s study session yesterday. One of the items was transit, which brought out the Bus Riders Union.

For those who don’t know about the Bus Riders Union, it was organized last year by Brian Flagg of Casa Maria to represent the interests of poor and working class riders that depend on Sun Tran to go to work or shop. It isn’t a group of people that seems to have a high priority from the folks at the City’s Transportation Department or the RTA as of late.

The Bus Riders Union did not testify, but they brought in about forty members to show support for what at first seemed a minor item that Karin Uhlich was putting forward.

It gets a bit complicated, but the City’s Transportation Department (also known as TDOT) is interested in moving the payment system for the buses to smart cards, which would put it in line with plans for using smart cards for the modern street car. Part of the preliminary plan would be to charge cash customers for (currently free) transfers. It would be a while before smart cards are widely available. This would mean that many of the low income riders that are represented by the Bus Riders Union (as well as occasional riders) will be paying more for a ride than others.

Uhlich wanted to pass a motion directing TDOT not to make this part of their plan. TDOT objected, but the vote was taken anyway and it passed 7-0.

Okay, small victory, but important. First off, it’s good to see a genuinely populist, grass roots movement get a win on behalf of working people. Props to Flagg and his crew at Casa Maria for giving us all a lesson in how it can be done.

Secondly, it was a challenge to the city bureaucracy. TDOT wanted to be given authorization to formulate a plan with no direction or instruction from mayor and council, after which it would likely be presented as a fait acompli. Uhlich’s actions also allowed Paul Cunningham and Shirley Scott the room to bring up their own concerns with the city’s transit system. It was good to see the city’s bureaucrats get a reminder of who they work for, even if they don’t like the “substitute teachers.”

Something else that I noticed that is a problem I’ve seen with the way the city is run. There are some arguments against this plan. For example, the transfer system may make usage of the modern street car problematic for bus riders, and the issue of transfers may go away entirely if the city can make sure that smart cards are easy to get for everyone. The trouble is, TDOT never made these arguments. You wouldn’t make them if you think all you have to do to justify your plans is merely to say that you want to do it.