San Diego’s publicly funded transit system bites the hand that feeds it
By Anna Daniels
MTS- you are a craven, pathetic mess. When Alliance San Diego launched a non-partisan effort to increase awareness about elections in communities with historically low voter turnout like my community of City Heights, they approached San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) with the intention of buying printed bus ads.
The ads would include the message Vote for San Diego, along with the date of the election. Images of native San Diegans were included with motivational messages such as “Vote for what’s best for your community.”
Did I say that Alliance San Diego’s intention was to buy bus ads? They weren’t asking for a public service freebee. MTS declined the request and herein lies the tale of how our publicly funded, public benefit agency proceeded to simply make sh*t up.
Excuse #1: MTS’ advertising agency Michael Allen and Associates, informed Alliance San Diego that their ads were too political. It should be a wake-up call to citizens when non-partisan efforts to get out the vote are deemed “too political.” This decision carries the taint of voter suppression efforts that are going on across the whole country.
Excuse #2: MTS general counsel replied with a different response–that the MTS policy only allows ads that serve a commercial purpose. Why is that? Doesn’t that give preference to one kind of protected speech over another? Alliance San Diego succinctly observes: “In other words, MTS will only allow messages that strengthen the corporate wallet, not our democracy.”
When Alliance San Diego pointed out that MTS has accepted non-commercial ads for City College, the non-profit First Five and water conservation ads, the argle bargle began. Here is how they resolved the contradiction/hypocrisy:
Excuse #1: The non-profit First Five ad “slipped through.” This is the “It was an honest mistake, never happen again” excuse.”
Excuse #2: The City College ad fit the criteria because it was ostensibly for commercial purposes because it invited a transaction to enroll in courses. This is the “I can see Russia from my house” exaggeration.
At the very least, MTS should make available the application for the water conservation partner. We want to know how they demonstrated that they would increase ridership. We also want to know the MTS methodology and reporting that is in place to track this increase.
Excuse #3: MTS makes exceptions, allowing for non-commercial ads with its partners. Simply paying for an ad, as commercial interests do, is not enough. Alliance San Diego must become a partner. And they must demonstrate how they would increase ridership in order to become a partner. This is the absolute bottom of the sack of lame excuses.
I suspect that MTS is really wading into the deep end on this one. But let’s go along with this “policy” for a moment. Does the demonstration of increased ridership only apply to non-commercial interests? If so, why is that? If every entity is paying for ads, why is one sub-set of this group singled out to demonstrate an increase in ridership?
What more does MTS want? To require transit dependent riders to buy a bus pass for their children while they are in utero?
At the very least, MTS should make available the application for the water conservation partner. We want to know how they demonstrated that they would increase ridership. We also want to know the MTS methodology and reporting that is in place to track this increase. This is called transparency and accountability.
Once you peel away the incoherence, a troubling residue remains. There is an inescapable irony or an abysmal ignorance in requiring Alliance San Diego to demonstrate how they would increase ridership. Remember, these ads would be on buses and trolleys with routes through neighborhoods with low voter turnout. Those communities with low voter turnout are also predominately low income and minority. They also happen to be transit dependent communities.
These communities feed MTS fare boxes seven days a week. Let’s be clear– MTS is unable to operate solely on fare box recovery and is heavily subsidized by public funds. But if all those transit dependent individuals decide to boycott MTS for a month, the agency would take a substantial financial hit. (The Number 7 bus in City Heights has historically had the highest bus ridership in the city.)
The target communities for Alliance San Diego’s get out the vote ads already have the highest ridership in the city. What more does MTS want? To require transit dependent riders to buy a bus pass for their children while they are in utero?
MTS willing to leave certain money– and individuals who use and support public transit– on the curb.
The February 2010 article “MTS May Be Leaving Money on the Curb” notes that San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria, who was and still is an MTS board member, was the only board member who voted for accepting exterior ads on MTS buses. He justified his vote saying “Certainly the buses are prettier without the ads, but it’s a small price to pay to communicate that we’re all sacrificing during these difficult times.”
Gloria was also representing City Heights, which was in the old District 3 at the time. He was well aware of transit issues in his district because his constituents regularly showed up at meetings to advise him, as they had advised Council members Toni Atkins, Christine Kehoe and John Hartley over the past decades, on that critical issue.
Not only does Councilman Gloria sit on the MTS board, so do Council members Myrtle Cole, David Alvarez and Marti Emerald. Each one of these board members represents communities with high transit ridership. They also represent neighborhoods with low voter turn out. It is inconceivable that any of them would support MTS’ incoherent policy.
These council members are all politically astute enough to know that the fiscal health of the agency relies upon public transit users and advocates. The only other constituents who seem to consistently weigh in on the issue are public transit bashers like Richard Rider and the San Diego Taxpayers Association who are quick to remind elected representatives that they vote.
Council member Gloria has taken interest in the ad policy and alluded to the upcoming MTS board meeting on Thursday October 30 in a SDFP tweet last week. The reality is that a decision in favor of Alliance San Diego will be moot three days before the election and that is shameful.
MTS’ ad policy must be revised and there needs to be citizen input on the issue. This input is important because the MTS board of directors does not have any representation by transit riders themselves. The resulting policy must be transparent and equitable in its application.
San Diego Free Press has been running a series called “Who Runs San Diego?” It’s worth keeping in mind while reading the series that there are individuals in San Diego who are in a position to interpret policy and believe that non-partisan efforts to get out the vote are “too political.”
(h/t Doug Porter for writing The Slippery Slope to Get Out the Vote in San Diego)