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[whitespace] Eugene Bradley
Photograph by Jeff Kearns

I Am The Passenger: Eugene Bradley's little group of transit riders gets dissed and dismissed but keeps on trying.

Super Transit Man

Rider extraordinaire Eugene Bradley presses the Valley Transit Authority for radical things like better and cheaper bus and train service. What's it take for a bus-riding activist to get a little respect around here?

By Allie Gottlieb

IT'S EASY TO write off public transit fan Eugene Bradley as a nut. At least, it sure seemed easy for the Valley Transit Authority on May 2, when, with little public discussion, its members voted unanimously to charge riders more for less service, despite Bradley's vigorous and thoughtful opposition.

Bradley, 31, transferred two years ago from New Jersey to the peninsula where he holds a systems administration job. The mild-mannered Sunnyvale resident, who doesn't own a car or a driver's license, founded a grassroots transit takers' advocacy and watchdog group--the Santa Clara VTA Riders Union--in December 2000 during a VTA strike by bus drivers and mechanics that disturbed service. Now he regularly posts a transportation web chat list and mailer for about 100 members (www.vtaridersunion.org), hands out "action alert" leaflets to keep county residents up on transit issues and tries to get a riders union rep to each transit-related meeting.

If a town's got a cause--and they all do--a town's got to have a guy like Bradley. He's the one who's awake at every boring City Council or, in his case, transportation meeting. He reads the whole report, even though it's written in language more soporific than a horse tranquilizer. He spends his free time writing number-heavy editorials and concocting detailed counterproposals to official government plans. He emails all the council and transit board members and the newspapers. He's surprised if he hears back. Is anyone listening? "For the most part," he says, "no."

In the face of rejection, Bradley tries again.

Why Bother?

"I care about getting from point A to point B," Bradley says, simply. He takes the No. 22 bus and Caltrain on his daily 90-minute trip to work. Then, on top of his 60-hour-a-week day job, he spends at least three hours weekly and 75 bucks monthly speaking out on behalf of the bus- and train-taking minority.

"There was no need to do this in New Jersey," Bradley says. He's never led a grassroots organization before, though he's volunteered with other nearby groups, including the Bay Rail Alliance. His hometown had "quality" public transportation, he says, but things are worse in Santa Clara County. Buses are too often late, if they show at all, he gripes. When he moved here, he found that no one was looking out for local transit riders. So he decided to do it.

At last Thursday's VTA board meeting, Bradley made a final two-minute plea to save current fares and service. "You don't punish transit riders by increasing fares," he told the board.

Before the board OKed the higher rates, board member Forrest Williams called the increases "reasonable," while board member Tom Springer complained that they weren't high enough.

The VTA says it's fishing for cash because of weakened sales tax revenue wrought by the sinking economy. Sales tax revenue covers 80 percent of the VTA's operating costs. The rest trickles in from fares (incidentally, ridership has fallen by 8.1 percent from last year), grants and investment income.

Tax revenue plummeted by more than 20 percent in the first two fiscal quarters of this year. According to the VTA literature, that's the "most extreme" decline "in the history of the VTA. The VTA predicts that sales tax revenue will drop to $152 million this fiscal year from $167 million in 2000.

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Less for More: What you can expect with the fare increase.

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Obviously, public transportation activists like Bradley oppose proposals like this. So what? Does the transportation authority really care about the nagging protests of a few bus and train freaks?

Sure, says John Pilger, the VTA's public information manager: "We view them as being part of the general public. We welcome their input along with all other public input."

Pilger sounds just like the VTA's promotional brochure. "Public comment is a vital part of the process," it swears. "All comments are provided to the VTA Board of Directors and considered as part of their decision-making process. Staff has already made changes to the initial proposal based on public input." Pilger backs up the brochure, adding that public reaction resulted in fewer bus line cuts.

Decision and policy makers like the VTA are accountable to public opinion and groups who affect and command public opinion, says Mike Dolan, co-director of Oakland's branch of Public Citizen, the national political watchdog group that Ralph Nader founded in 1971. While his group is not involved in the VTA's planning process, he offers general thoughts about watchdog organizing and advocacy.

"What we're up against is fairly opaque cabals of moneyed interests ... the influence that big money can enjoy" that local groups cannot, Dolan says. He adds that sometimes it takes embarrassing a powerful governing agency to get it to listen to the little guy.

Hearing Voices

"Re: fare increases ... this is getting too high for those of us on fixed income," Dawn Wilcox wrote in the public comment she turned in to the VTA at a March 13 meeting in Mountain View.

"I would like to suggest that the management of VTA take a cut in pay instead of raises and increasing fares," commented Marga Goehner, who attended a San Jose meeting.

These are the folks Bradley is avenging. Rather than taking the transit deficit out of the riders' hide, Bradley's group recommended hitting up developers who build away from transit lines and force more cars onto the road. The VTA has considered and rejected this impact-fee idea in the past. Other suggestions included doing away with free parking in downtown San Jose and using the parking money for public transportation--and making trains and buses run on time to keep people interested in taking them.

The riders union also criticizes the VTA for failing to effectively promote public transportation and for failing to make its staff use it. The group urged in its doomed counterplan that the transportation authority "require VTA staff, management and board members to use the bus and light rail system instead of VTA courtesy cars. This not only saves revenue internally but also shows confidence in using the bus and light rail system and an alternative to driving in Santa Clara County."

Of course, as a VTA employee pointed out in a rare contribution to the riders union website, some transportation jobs require cars or trucks--anything construction- or maintenance-related, for example.

While four years younger and less influential than Rescue Muni, a better-known transit-users group in San Francisco, Bradley says the riders union has waged successful lobbying campaigns. He and his pals were behind the VTA's decision to allow other public transportation agencies' schedules on area buses and light rail trains.

But the riders union still has a lot of growing to do. The group has failed to garner support from elected officials, on or off the VTA board. Like resentful siblings, riders union members note that Rescue Muni gets to sit on an advisory panel during Muni's transportation planning. The riders union wants a comparable spot on the valley's team.

"We get the impression many times that the decisions were already made" before riders get to object, Bradley says. At the same time, his spirit seems notably uncrushed. "You learn very quickly not to give up, because the instant you do give up, the VTA ends up winning," Bradley says.

After losing this latest battle, Bradley geared up to head home in the dark and post the bad news on his website.


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From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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