“No contract, no vote,” Rapid leadership clashes with ATU over contract negotiations

Tensions have recently risen between the Interurban Transit Partnership (also known as The Rapid) and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 836, a union representing most of the bus drivers for the Rapid. After two years of operating without a union contract, the Rapid remains unable to successfully negotiate a new contract with ATU 836.

Though the conflict has been brewing for some time, it boiled over starting this July, when nearly a dozen protesters from ATU protested a Rapid news conference for the launch of a new fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.The protest, according to ATU member Louis Dushane, was a “warning to the Rapid.” Louis went on to indicate that, “if they don’t give us a fair contract, we’re going to organize against their millage that they want to pass this fall.” Though Rapid leadership was quick to downplay the incident and the conflict, ATU members remain dissatisfied.

After members of the ATU voted not to ratify the Rapid’s proposed contract on August 27, Rapid CEO Peter Varga claimed they were committed to reaching an agreement, despite two years of negotiations ending with another failure. ATU 836 President Richard Jackson noted that 65% of eligible union members voted against the agreement, a devastating indictment of the inability of the Rapid to come to terms with the union.

With the mantra “No Contract, No Vote,” many union members are repeatedly and rightfully expressing their dissatisfaction with Rapid leadership. Protests have been heating up since the rejection of the contract in August, including an incident where union member Louis DeShane was arrested at a Rapid board meeting. “For being at a legal protest, I would say I was not treated right,” DeShane said. “I’m at a legal protest and being taken away by the police – it seems a little facist by The Rapid.” Most recently, union members were shouted out of a Grand Rapids city commission meeting during another protest against the Rapid.

During that protest, Democratic candidate for the 77th district seat in the State House, Robert Van Kirk, summed up the conflict succinctly: “I’m for public transit; public transit is essential – especially if we want to have good living conditions, good working conditions in the metro Grand Rapids area. We cannot have one without the other. You have to have good public transit and you have to have working conditions that are good and pay that is equitable.”

The Rapid bus service is broken and needs reform – for bus drivers, mechanics, and riders. The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance urges a “No” vote on November 7.


Opposition to Transit Renewal Launches its Campaign in Kent County

Today, the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) announced the official launch of Kent Transit in Action. Kent Transit in Action is organized to oppose the upcoming tax renewal for the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP), also known as The Rapid.

“Despite ridership data showing the wide presence of empty buses operating throughout the bus system wasting taxpayer dollars to transport little to no passengers,” said spokesman Eric Larson, “The Rapid is pushing for an extended renewal of the millage on municipalities throughout Kent County, including Grand Rapids, Walker, Grandville, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, and Wyoming.”

The Rapid has continued to expand the number of buses and lines operating over the past five years despite a nearly 10% fall in ridership since its peak. At the time of the razor thin 64 renewal vote margin in 2011, buses carried almost 7.5 people on the bus. Today that number has fallen to less than 6.4.

“With the adoption of the Silverline,” Larson continued, “more and more traffic is shoved into fewer and fewer lanes, as Rapid buses close down Division Avenue and Monroe Avenue lanes during rush hour. Far from relaxing the little congestion there already is in Grand Rapids, Rapid bus lanes have only made traffic worse.”

These issues pale in comparison to the exorbitant cost posed by the proposed tax renewal. Should this measure pass, taxpayers will be subsidizing the Rapid’s operations to the tune of nearly $15 million annually. From the 1.47 mils proposed to levy, 0.5 mils (nearly $5 million a year) would fund the Silver Line.

The Silver Line, which has notoriously failed to live up to grandiose promises of speed and ridership, doesn’t even traverse a number of communities purportedly served by The Rapid, including Grandville, Walker, and East Grand Rapids, with only token stops in Kentwood and Wyoming.

The Kent County Taxpayer Alliance urges a NO vote on the upcoming Rapid tax renewal.

Rapid CEO Peter Varga receives bonus on eve of tax renewal

In just shy of two months, The Rapid will be seeking a renewal of a 1.47 mils tax. The millage will ostensibly be sufficient to help support its operations for another twelve years, to the tune of $14.8 million annually. Though the millage renewal is a short time away, the Rapid’s oversight board saw fit to award Rapid CEO Peter Varga a $4,500 “merit bonus” last month.

Peter Varga’s bonus, while only a negligible chunk of the overall budget, is another in a long line of wasteful financial decisions by The Rapid. The Rapid, operated by the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP), has a long history of benefiting their executives and their organization at taxpayer expense, with no benefit for riders of taxpayers. It is enormously disrespectful of Kent County taxpayers to urge the passage of yet another millage, while siphoning off thousands for bonuses to ITP executives like Peter Varga (on top of his already ample compensation of over $200,000 a year).

Proponents of the millage will no doubt assert its necessity for continuing “vital transportation services’, even in light of stagnant ridership numbers. Despite grandiose assurances from previous expansions like the Silver Line, which failed to deliver promised ridership and revenue, the Rapid’s supporters will breathlessly assert that, with a little bit more money, everything will work just as they say.

In truth, the tax renewal will go to line the pockets of ITP executives, keep empty buses chugging along the roads, and for more empty central stations.

The KCTA urges you to vote NO on the upcoming Rapid millage.