Pensacola, Florida
Friday November 24th 2017

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Bus Union Resists County Takeover

By Duwayne Escobedo

Escambia County Commission Chairman Doug Underhill wants the county to assume management of Escambia County Area Transit (ECAT) operations, cut up to nine routes and eliminate a third of the employees to save taxpayers more than $3.3 million.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1395 President Mike Lowery said putting the bus system under county control will only happen if the county creates a private not-for-profit shell corporation. He said the city of Jacksonville operates such a model. For 72 years in Escambia County, Lowery pointed out that union members have been private-sector employees.

Lowery said if ECAT’s more than 100 employees become public employees, they lose the federal protections and powers granted under the National Labor Relations Act. Instead, they would fall under the weaker rules of the Florida Public Employee Relations Commission that gives the county all the control in labor negotiations, according to the union president.

“Unless we remain a private business, we can’t get what we want at the negotiation table,” Lowery explained.

Underhill said ATU Local 1395 will have to make concessions, which includes cutting routes that he said would allow the county to roll back the gas tax back 2-cents a gallon. The county has met at least four times in closed-door sessions to discuss ECAT.

“That money doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the people,” Underhill said. “What we don’t do is piss away their money. We’re not frigging Greyhound.”

Lowery said the union opposes cutting routes but will help improve the current 22 routes it operates. He said the union can save county taxpayers money with savings from a better healthcare insurance plan and the elimination of the profits of private management companies, such as First Transit.

No More First Transit
Commissioners decided not to renew the First Transit contract that ends Oct. 1 when it was learned the Ohio-based company failed to pay $129,000 to employees 401K benefits. The company blamed it on an administrative error.

The five-member county board told staff to bring the management of ECAT under its control. County Administrator Jack Brown said discussions with ECAT are ongoing, but he couldn’t reveal any details.

Underhill, though, armed with a pile of documents analyzing the bus route ridership, the cost per route and other information had plenty to say.

He pointed out all the bus lines with eight or less riders per hour. They include: Route 41 to East Pensacola Heights; Route 57 to Naval Air Technical Training Center/Corry Field/Downtown; Route 58 to Downtown/Veterans Administration Clinic/Blue Angel; Route 59 to Naval Air Station/Cordova Mall; Route 60 to Century; Route 61 to Pensacola Beach; Route 63 to Michigan/Airport; Route 64 Beach Jumper; Route 66 Navy Federal; and Route 59A Naval Air Station/Airport.

Those routes resulted in losses to the county of $12.12 per passenger to $198.67 per passenger.

Underhill pointed out specifically that the Century route that runs three times per day averages five riders per hour, costing the county $60.01 per passenger and $395,907 total.

“I could buy each of them a BMW,” Underhill said. “We’re trying to create demand where there isn’t one. We need better control to right size the transit system and make it effective.”

The union president sees mass transit differently both from the perspectives of its finances and its mission. Lowery points out that Federal Transportation Authority contributes $4-5 million each year to help the county run the busing system and cover the costs for the routes that connect NAS Pensacola sailors with Cordova Mall and Pensacola International Airport, veterans with the VA, and workers with their jobs on Pensacola Beach and in other parts of the county.

For Lowery mass transit is more than another county-owned business operation, it’s a vital service for those who need transportation to their jobs, medical services and groceries. He said routes that Commissioner Underhill has targeted for elimination should remain as part of the county’s responsibility to serve all of its citizens.

“We don’t have to give up anything,” Lowery said.

Still, Underhill said that the ECAT system costs about $13 million but has collected about $1 million a year from bus riders the past three years. Ridership revenue has been on the decline from $1.3 million in FY 2015 to $1.2 million in FY 2016 and $621,287 in the first six months of FY 2017.

Meanwhile, over the past three fiscal years, the average number of bus riders an hour has dropped from 16 in FY 2015 to 14 in FY 2016 to 13 in FY 2017. Underhill said he has supported mass transit as a commissioner, voting for WiFi, covered bus shelters and new buses. However, he said the county’s recent research has changed his mind.

“Everything is trending down,” Underhill said.

Meanwhile, the county hired Mike Crittenden as its first mass transit director. Crittenden was chosen over three other candidates for the newly created position.

Crittenden has more than three decades of transportation experience in public and private sectors in fleet operations, logistics, project management and transportation research. Crittenden was employed with First Transit and served in several roles over 17 years, including region director of operations for the Southeast and ECAT general manager.

“I’m very excited to be back working for Escambia County residents,” Crittenden said in a county press release. “I am looking forward to collaborating with our elected officials, community leaders, stakeholders, customers and employees to improve ECAT and paratransit’s overall operating efficiency.”

He earned praise from both Underhill and Lowery for his leadership ability.

“I have an enormous amount of respect for him,” Underhill said.

The county has put ECAT on the agenda for its Sept. 7 meeting. Lowery said the union has partnered with about 500 riders it calls “The Riders Union” to help oppose ECAT employees becoming county employees.

“We want a neutral arbitrator to make our decisions, not elected officials,” Lowery said. “If we have an impasse, the county will just get what they want. That’s not a pretty picture.”