Competitive contracting allows for these cost savings and operational efficiencies while maintaining local control over routes, fares and schedules, ensuring strong accountability through performance standards and preserving labor rights — including full compliance with transit labor protections that are meant to prevent any adverse effects to existing employees. Privatization does not impact the workforce’s right to organize — approximately 75 percent of the private contracting transit workforce is unionized.
Indeed, success stories for competitive contracting of transit services abound. Today, 76.6 percent of all demand response service is privately contracted. Between 1998 and 2009, privately contracted service for fixed route bus service increased from 7.4 percent of total vehicles in maximum service to 15.9 percent — more than doubling, but remaining a fraction of all service.
The history of contracting by the Denver Regional Transportation District is particularly noteworthy. A Colorado state law passed in 1988 to reduce public transportation costs required at least 20 percent of Denver transit service to be competitively contracted. The initiative’s success led to that threshold being raised to 35 percent. Today, more than 45 percent of bus service there is competitively contracted and Denver RTD saves over $60 million annually. Service has even been enhanced and, in many instances, safety and on-time performance have improved. Both RTD’s direct employees and the private carriers are unionized.
This is an excellent example of a solution that keeps budgets under control while preserving vital services that workers and families need, and which are essential to the smooth operation of our economy.
Encouraging and facilitating competitive contracting for transit services is something Democrats and Republicans on the Hill should come together to support.
Trent Lott is a former Republican Senator from Mississippi who now serves as senior counsel at Patton Boggs. He is the chairman of the Affordable Commuting Coalition.