New information released by King County Metro shows that Metro drivers enjoy the third-highest wages in the nation, behind only Boston and San Jose. The top wage for a driver at Metro is $28.47 an hour---higher than drivers' wages in much more expensive cities like San Francisco ($27.92) and New York ($28).
Metro drivers have also enjoyed significant wage increases over the years, averaging a 3.9 percent annual increase since 2004. That's significantly higher than the Consumer Price Index (inflation rate) in Seattle, which rose an average of 3.2 percent a year between 2004 and 2008 and just 0.6 percent in 2009.
Only Las Vegas transit operators, who enjoyed an average wage increase over the past five years of 4.5 percent, had a larger pay increase---and they make far less than Metro drivers, topping out at just $19.60.
Meanwhile, Metro projects a budget shortfall due to declining sales-tax revenues of $600 million over the next three years.
And, as former state transportation secretary Doug MacDonald points out, those numbers don't include benefits, which are projected to make up 21 percent of Metro's 2010-2011 operating budget. Add that to wages, which make up 44 percent of Metro's budget, and you get to 65 percent, or nearly $786 million.
County employees currently enjoy benefits so generous they're routinely referred to as "Cadillac plans," and although the county did shift more of the cost of health care to employees this year, county workers still don't have to pay any portion of their premiums. Since 2005, the monthly cost for health care for county workers has risen 28 percent, to $1,015.
The reason for those high wages and benefits is, in large part, the union (Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587), which is just beginning its contract negotiations with the county for next year. (The ATU's current contract expires October 31).
No one wants public employees to be underpaid. But Metro drivers' compensation is clearly out of whack---both with other Washington State government employees (state employees took furloughs and received no cost-of-living adjustments this year, effectively accepting a wage decrease) and other transit agencies nationwide. Ultimately, it's clear that if the union does not make wage and benefits concessions, the result will be fewer buses on the street and fewer drivers on the roads.
"The fundamental problem is that you've got to put as many [drivers] on the street as you possibly can," MacDonald says. "Before you worry about anything else, you have to ask the question, what can you do so as not to shrink the service? Because in order to have a transit system that works, you have to have seats for people to put their butts in."
Metro avoided major cuts this year, but plans service cuts of about 5 percent in the next two years.
Frank Abe, spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine, confirmed that the county recently began negotiations with the transit union. "As you know, collective bargaining is an opportunity for both the county and the union to identify and share their interests with each other, and we will be bringing our interests to the bargaining table," Abe said. ATU president Paul Bachtel has not yet returned a call.