Privatization of buses would be a disaster

April 28, 2011

In his call for the privatization of Maryland Transit Administration buses, ("End the MTA monopoly," April 14), James A. Dorn several times refers to his disdain for unions and so-called "low-income riders who determine the state of mass transit." Apparently, he believes that it is better for out-of-state (and in most cases international) private companies with no regard for anything but the bottom line to determine whether or not a particular bus route is worth running. Shouldn't such decisions be left to local leaders representing the more than 30 percent of Baltimore residents who have no car?

Contrary to Mr. Dorn's analysis, there is no "magic" money that will suddenly make the buses run more efficiently if services are converted from public to private. In places where mandated privatization has been tried, out-of-town companies make all sorts of lofty promises about cost savings that soon get broken. Then they slash wages and cut training programs to the bone, resulting in massive employee turnover, which of course affects service quality and safety. Just ask the people in Denver, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and countless other cities where transit privatization has failed miserably.

As stated by Elliott Sclar, professor of urban planning and the director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, relying on private service means replacing public transit employees with a lower-paid and typically untaxed labor force. Nationwide, such van operators have reported working 14-hour days, seven days a week, for about $200 in daily pay — before maintenance expenses. These drivers have no health insurance, retirement or disability benefits. Adding more informal workers to the Baltimore work force is no way to build a robust local economy.

Mr. Dorn did get one thing right: The MTA unions and the "low-income constituents" who rely on the bus every day to get to work, school, church and everywhere in between are indeed united. We share the desire to have safe, reliable, affordable and convenient public transportation for the people of Baltimore. Maryland legislators should be praised — not scolded — for their efforts to maintain and improve public transit for Baltimore's proud transit-dependent residents.

Lawrence J. Hanley, Washington

The writer is international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

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