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As bus driver strike enters 3rd week, riders ask why MTS privatized their public transit

Bus drivers in San Diego are entering their third week of a striking — the longest transit strike in San Diego’s recent history. KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen says the labor dispute is raising questions about the privatization of public transit.

Some San Diego bus drivers are entering their third week of a work stoppage — the longest public transit strike in the county's recent history. And that's prompting transit riders to ask a common question: Why has the Metropolitan Transit System outsourced most of its bus operations to private companies?

The striking bus drivers work for Transdev, a multinational company MTS contracts with to operate more than half of its bus routes. Agency spokesman Mark Olson said the arrangement saves MTS between 25% and 35% on those operations.

"Transdev is a large, global company, so it can take advantage of a much larger economy of scale when it comes to goods, materials, services and insurance premiums," Olson said. "MTS can then reinvest the savings back into the transit system to keep service levels high."


But the savings may also translate to inferior working conditions for Transdev employees who are unionized under Teamsters Local 683. Erika Lopez, a bus driver for 14 years, said one of the main sticking points in contract negotiations is access to clean and safe bathrooms. She said the situation is especially bad for women.

"Port-a-potties are not that clean as is," Lopez said. "And then let's say at five or six in the morning, if we do go to a port-a-potty, I've had times where people from the street try to open the door."

Private contractors have been a part of public transit in San Diego County since the beginning. Colin Parent, executive director of the nonprofit Circulate San Diego, said the privatizing public transit trend has taken off in the past few decades. But, he said there hadn't been much discussion about what MTS is giving up: a direct relationship with transit drivers and passengers.

"Instead of the riders being able to tell MTS, the public agency, 'Hey, we want you to take care of your workers so that we get the buses running again,' … MTS can kind of point to this third-party intermediary company and say, 'Well it's not our fault, it's this other company,'" Parent said. "That's certainly not good for the workers, but it's also really not good for the riders."

While most out-of-service bus routes are in the South Bay and East County, a handful of the impacted routes also run through central San Diego. One bus stop on University Avenue in Hillcrest had no signage telling riders that the #1 bus was not running on schedule due to the strike.


Gary Goss relies on MTS in Hillcrest to commute to his job in Kensington and his school downtown. He said MTS has done a terrible job communicating with riders about service impacts during the strike and that he often sees crowds of confused passengers waiting for a bus that won't show up.

"How are we going to make any improvements to our future transit system — make more rapid bus routes, make more trolley lines — if we can barely maintain the already popular local routes that we have now?" Goss said.

Teamsters Local 683 said it had made progress in negotiations with Transdev. However, disagreements remain over "clean bathrooms and break areas, along with a scheduling policy allowing Transdev workers to have a life outside work."

City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, who was recently elected chair of the MTS board of directors, declined to say whether he thinks MTS would be better off bringing more bus services in-house. But he said the ongoing lack of transit service is unacceptable.

"I am deeply concerned about Transdev’s failure to provide transit service to many of our MTS customers," Whitburn said. "If the transit service is not restored this week, I will call an emergency meeting of the board of directors to explore our options."

MTS' contract with Transdev is up for renewal in the summer of 2026. But the agreement also allows MTS to cancel it if the company fails to perform its obligations.

Goss said he doesn't firmly believe privatizing public transit services is inherently wrong. But he said MTS seems unwilling to make a case for why it's still the best option.

"They just sort of say, 'This is how it is; it lowers costs somehow,'" Goss said. "But are riders really seeing that lower cost? Because riders are having to pay for Ubers right now."

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