ATU MEMBERS: In photo distributed with the news release.

The union that represents Rock Region Metro employees is protesting planned route cuts by the transit service because of their impact on poor, minority communities.

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The release from ATU Local 704:

Days after civil rights protests roiled the state capital, the members of ATU Local 704 are calling for similar public pressure in their fight against the drastic service cuts that their employer, Rock Region METRO, has planned for several bus routes around the city, and which the agency plans to announce at public hearings on July 7th, 8th, and 9th.

“METRO is axing bus routes in the very neighborhoods that need it most” said ATU Local President, Carl Beecham. “These are working class, African-American neighborhoods where hard working people have commuted to their jobs day in, day out for years. It’s absolutely outrageous that METRO has decided to cut entire communities off from the very lifeline that gives them safe, reliable transit to work in the downtown core. These types of short-sighted austerity measures spell death for the economic health of this city.”

Bus routes 9 and 21 were first on METRO’s chopping block: this past March they replaced those routes with their METRO Connect “microtransit” vans, an Uber-like service that picks up individual customers on demand. In meetings with the union, METRO has identified between nine and ten additional routes it plans to discontinue.

In June, an article in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette noted that the METRO board was expecting criticism for deciding to target “impoverished areas,” and quoted a board member who acknowledged that METRO might be accused of “racial bias or economic bias” for its decision, particularly now that the George Floyd protests have brought the problems of systemic racism to the fore of public discussion.

According to Beecham, this is not the first and only time that his members, who are mostly African-American, have had to push back against racist behavior by Rock Region METRO’s management. The union was forced to file an EEOC complaint against a manager earlier this summer, after he allegedly made numerous derogatory remarks to workers.

“It’s difficult to work under these conditions,” said Beecham. “In hard times like these, we want to do what’s best for the entire community—in fact that’s why our union worked so hard to help METRO successfully apply for the $14.98 million they received from the CARES Act. But now that they’re just cutting service and shifting to cheaper microtransit vans, it’s unclear to us where all that money went.”

METRO allegedly paid a Californian consulting firm $300,000 to determine which routes it should cut. “Consultants out of California have no business stripping service away from our city,” Beecham said. “They don’t know anything about Arkansas.”

I sought a response from the director of Rock Region and its communications officer, but neither is in the office today.

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UPDATE: Becca Green, director of public engagement, saw my email and responded in part:

First: It’s disappointing that some members of our employee union would choose to use politically charged words to purposely mislead people about our suggested transit network project, which several members of our team have worked incredibly hard to put together for central Arkansas’ public transit riders, with a high level of public participation throughout the process.

Facts: This suggested transit service network provides improved transit access for the community; it provides for no loss of union jobs; and it offers expanded span of service hours, improved frequencies and new services with more access to jobs.

And: Rock Region METRO has a zero-tolerance policy for any type of discrimination. We are currently investigating an allegation of discrimination and, once the investigation is complete, we will take the appropriate level of corrective action, if necessary. Here’s a link to the EEOC statement: https://rrmetro.org/about/learn-more/employment/

More on the Suggested Route Changes

We understand some of our union employees are dissatisfied with METRO’s proposed route changes. Microtransit driver jobs are jobs that pay less than fixed route bus driver jobs, which is what I suspect the union release’s reference to “cheaper” is all about. This suggested route change plan keeps all union jobs we have in place.

I think you’re aware we suspended 9.5 routes in two rounds of service modifications during the pandemic so far. Please read the following May 11 service alert for a refresher on why we suspended those at the following link. I suspect that is what the release’s reference to “austerity” is about. The hope is to stabilize our service and be able to depend on drivers showing up to work every day so we can bring service back online.  https://rrmetro.org/metro-modifies-bus-and-paratransit-service-monday-may-11/

In June, we announced public information meetings happening next week for our annual service enhancements (service changes). This is our fifth time to engage in an annual service enhancements process since I joined METRO, and every time we change service, we hear a full spectrum of opinions about the changes, which is the entire point of public engagement — getting feedback. You can read about the process at this link, including information on meeting dates, times, locations and other public information. Next week, after the July 8 meeting, route change narratives and maps will be posted online at this same webpage to kick off a public comment period from July 8 to July 15. I’m also including links to each public FB meeting below if you’d like to share them. https://rrmetro.org/annual-service-enhancements/

In this suggested new route network plan, we actually serve more minorities living within Pulaski County than the existing transit network. We would welcome the opportunity to walk you through how the microtransit service works and where and why we’re suggesting it be implemented.

… Bottom line, the consulting team that worked on this project did an excellent job of providing some real gains for the transit network at a cost-neutral budget, and we think riders have a lot to like in the plan.