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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Emery-Go-Round at a Crisis Point

Is Emeryville Finally Going to Grow Up?

Emeryville's free bus service,  Emery-Go-Round has been in the news a lot recently.  It was featured on National Public Radio today after a crisis point was reached last week when Watergate neighbors erupted as the buses stopped servicing their area.  A nadir seems to have been reached at EGR and as the NPR piece illustrated, everyone seems to think change is inevitable for the popular bus service.  We agree, change is coming to Emery-Go-Round but we want to make sure the looming change is to the benefit of the residents.
To make sure there's this kind of beneficial change, first we need to dispense with a popular meme, uniformly forwarded by business elites and so pervasive in our culture that it seems to be simple common sense. We're talking about the idea that the private sector is more efficient than government and somehow better at delivering public services.  Without getting bogged down with a civics discourse at this point, suffice it to say some things are best taken care of by government, perhaps not widget manufactory but certainly public mass transit delivery.  The breakdown at Watergate last week should be seen as a persuasive buttress of this non-radical idea.  We think more of this kind of service disruption is coming even as the EGR Board of Directors has agreed to a temporary fix at Watergate.  As this bus service has grown over the years, EGR now can't seem to provide the service Emeryville residents need and are expecting.

A Little Emery-Go-Round History
Against a backdrop of ever increasing traffic jams brought on by Emeryville's incessant development, the free buses were started in 1995 by Emeryville businesses looking to speed transit and convenience for their workers, their clients and customers.  A transit authority with taxing authority was set up, run by the businesses and paid for primarily by them (City Hall and the School District also pays some).   But like a newly widened freeway drawing more cars by easing the commute to far-flung suburbs, EGR's popularity became an engine in itself for more growth in our town. The City Council members started seeing EGR as a green light for more intensively developed residential projects.  Traffic studies for proposed residential mega-projects could tap into the Emery-Go-Round to show a lighter impact on our streets, giving the Council all the cover they needed to approve more and more development.
And develop Emeryville has.  At this point, like it or not, we're totally dependent on the Emery-Go-Round; without it our streets would be hopelessly clogged and business here would take a big hit.  Where neighboring cities can ameliorate their traffic problems with reliance on traditional buses (and BART), Emeryville's massive growth makes AC Transit insufficient.

The problem is that the City Council bought into the line that Emeryville's business sector could take care of the traffic problem. Now that it's been shown that they can't, we're going to have to fund EGR the old fashioned way; by government.

Why Did EGR Falter?
For years this bus service has worked fine.  So why is it not working now?
As more and more people started using the service, costs started going up.  This has recently been a source of irritation among the business property owners that pay for the buses.  An EGR Board of Directors shakeup finally resulted in a revolt of a sort.  The Tattler recently reported how the new Board drew a line in the sand: the EGR buses are for payers, not the general public they said.  Watergate residences, being non-payers were cut out.  But the Board of Directors, wishing to stave off a public relations disaster, tried to blame City Hall for the disruption in service because of recent sidewalk improvements.  They tried to forward the canard that due to this City Hall "negligence", the buses could no longer turn around at Watergate. The Tattler revealed the sidewalk argument was nothing but a red herring, meant to draw attention away from the Board's own draconian decision to ace Watergate residents out of the bus service.
Emery-Go-Round at Wareham Development's
Emery Station East 
Wareham CEO Rich Robbins wants Emeryville
taxpayers to pay but he wants to continue to control the bus service.  

If City Hall takes over, he might have to pay more.

Businesses Aren't Charities
Some of the more forthright Emery-Go-Round Board members will publicly state the obvious: the businesses that fund EGR aren't operating a charity; they're trying to look after their bottom line all the City sidewalk work obfuscation notwithstanding.  The EGR service has been morphing into a bus service primarily for non-payers, they'll remind us.  We agree with this sentiment; it's foolish to assume the business community will volunteer their resources for the greater public good.  We should always assume they're looking out for their own bottom lines.  That's why it was a fools errand to allow the business community to run the Emery-Go-Round to begin with.  The City Council massively developed our town and they're responsible for any negative impacts, not the business community.  City Hall must now take over this vital service and fund it the old fashioned way: with taxes.

Who Should Pay?
Back before the advent of supply side economics and phony rational market mania took over Washington, glazing the eyes even of Democrats, there used to be an axiom when it came time for government to raise revenue; the notion of 'the ability to pay'.  The idea was that those with the greatest ability should pay the most, those with less ability should pay less.  This is a philosophy that got us out of the Great Depression and helped built our great American middle class.
With regard to the Emery-Go-Round, those with the greatest ability to pay are the business community.  We must remember, they're here at our pleasure (insofar as the Constitution allows us to craft our city to our liking), not because we like them but because we want them here to pay for stuff we want.
Businesses don't count in this equation.  They literally don't count:  they can't vote.  Only residents can vote.  It's the residents who drive what our town will become and it's the residents for whom the town is built. We need to remember this as we turn a page with the Emery-Go-Round.
The private business sector can't be trusted with this public service, but they're the ones that should pay for it.  It should be seen as the cost of doing business in our town. We need to start selling our town for what it's worth instead of constantly selling it short.  We've had it with the hand wringing "win-win" phony declarations from this Council when it comes time to make business pay their share.  Win-win usually comes to mean win for the business community and lose for the residents.
Regarding the Emery-Go-Round, we say it's time for Emeryville to put away this childish argument about businesses being responsible for the public infrastructure.  It's time for Emeryville to finally grow up.  We the public are the responsible party for public transit here.


  1. Just remember why they started to pay for the e-go-round. Businesses benefited mightily from redevelopment funds and there was, in theory, a quid pro quo.

    1. A quid pro quo as in-

      City Hall: "We'll provide lots of subsidies from the Redevelopment Agency if you pay for the Emery-Go-Round."

      Emeryville Businesses: "Sounds good to us. You've got a deal"

  2. The Emerygoround is good, but good for certain people, but the thing that doesn't make sense is that some of the people who pay for it, don't need or use it. Maybe it shouldn't be private and be turned into a public service where everybody pays their share. It seems like the last few articles posted have discussed this matter, but there doesn't seem to be a clear cut answer. Such as the article about Temescal park with the homeless, what if it was privatized? Or the private sidewalks in the new developments, it is hard for them to look upscale and attract customers when you have someone sleeping in your doorway. I guess the real answer is your point of view and where you are located on the food chain.

    1. I think you need to re-read some Tattler stories if you're characterizing the editorial stance here as being in favor of privatizing the public commons.

    2. I think I read the articles right, let me know if I am mistaken. The "Shared space at Temescal", I hope is pointing out how miserably the city takes care of their investments, there should be no persons living in the park along side of children playing. The "Private grab at the public commons", what I take from that article, is that it is sad that the city cannot provide the services that we all are paying for anyways. We want safe sidewalks, but they cannot provide them and that is why the business people would rather control them themselves. Then there is the Emerygoround, which is private, they do a great job, but they don't service all of us. Watergate residents were upset when they cancelled their service, but they don't pay for it. The bottom line is that Emeryville must demand that their leaders and city employees start working for the residents and stop looking after their own interests. I also don't want to see corporations running this city. I just want our city to start doing their job.

    3. You're mistaken. But you can interpret these articles any way you want.

  3. I think the point is that your editorials often illustrate the absurdity of your positions.

    1. Agreed. Given Emeryville's rollicking history over the last twenty some odd years, it's absurd to expect the City Council majority, what with legendary their fondness for developers at the expense of residents, to suddenly start to promulgate public policy in the interests of Emeryville residents. Yet that is what I keep calling for. I think you may have nailed it: absurd.