Walkout casts doubt on mass transit’s future

After its 1995 strike, Metro Transit offered fare deals to lure back lost customers.

Britt Johnsen

When transit workers went on strike in 1995, there was a decrease in transit demand and an increase in bus fares, a transit official said.

Now, some officials said they wonder what the effects of this strike will be.

By not running buses, the Metropolitan Council is saving approximately $220,000 per day, Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said. Though it is saving money now, the future of mass transit is something officials said is unclear.

Some of the money saved in 1995 was used to build back the 3 percent of customers Metro Transit lost, Gibbons said. He said the organization offered free service for one day and sold monthly passes for half price.

For this strike, Gibbons said, the opening of the Hiawatha light-rail transit line in December will increase the number of mass-transit users.

“I think that the opening of light rail will have a positive impact on ridership,” he said.

Gibbons said the public’s curiosity and a new option for transportation will make it easier to get more riders.

David Strom, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, wonders whether mass transit is necessary at all.

“I’m trying to get people focused on what transit does and doesn’t do,” Strom said. “It has had pretty much zero impact on the free flow of the highways. What are we buying?”

Strom said the $220 million the Met Council spends on transportation per year could be spent on cars for those who cannot afford to buy them. He said he would like to see the money spent making people less mass-transit dependent and to provide better road quality.

Frank Douma, research fellow for the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said he thinks mass transportation is important in the Twin Cities.

“I think it serves a number of things in living in a large metropolitan area. Therefore, some level of transit is indeed important,” he said.

Douma said taking cars off the road decreases the risk of car accidents, provides cleaner air and allows those who cannot drive or cannot afford to drive a way to get around.

John Budd, professor of industrial relations at the Carlson School of Management, said it is too early to tell how the strike will affect the future of transit.

“It’s only been a couple of days, so people can cope with things by carpooling and adjusting work hours,” he said. “It might be reasonable to make those adjustments for a couple of days, but indefinitely it’s a much different story. It’s premature to jump to too many conclusions based on a couple of days of a strike.”

Met Council and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 officials have both said they will not change positions. The core issues of their disagreement are wages and health care. The union represents 2,150 Metro Transit workers.

Gibbons said there are no new talks scheduled. For now, he called the situation “quiet.”