“We were trying to hire people at just under $11 an hour with a long progression. And we knew that market was $14.50. So we had to somehow take this labor contract and give drivers a good raise and get the starting wage up by about $3 more an hour and do that in all this financial crisis.”
The labor agreement went through more than 100 changes, where according to Jablonski a good one gets changed maybe five or six times. While it may have been difficult, Jablonski wanted to make sure they got an agreement all parties would be happy with.
Jablonski says they wanted an agreement where, “people that want to work and want to come to work are gonna get paid well. And we finally got there.”
Advancing the Trolley
The trolley has become almost synonymous with San Diego, having been there for more than a quarter of a century and the first of its kind in California. Still a huge success, the trolley isn’t without a need for some updating.
The first of several planned changes takes place this September with fares going from zone-based to a flat $2.50 throughout the system, which Jablonski thinks will increase revenue and make it simpler for riders.
“I mean we see with the zone-based system a lot of scratching of heads at our ticket vending machines,” Jablonski admits.
Another change is the implementation of smart cards to replace monthly flash passes. The new flat fare system is designed to make putting the smart cards into service a lot simpler than requiring a swipe boarding and disembarking from the vehicles with a zone-based system (to get the correct fare).
“We just felt that going from a flash card type of monthly pass to that level of sophistication was going to be very difficult for our ridership,” Jablonski states. “So we worked with SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments—the local MPO) to come up with a flat fare that would maintain our revenue, yet make it a lot simpler. So we’ll see.
“The smart card will initially be loaded with a monthly pass. And we’re going to get over that hump of making sure that everybody who has a smart card when they come into a station they tap it.”
Jablonski says that one of his concerns when coming to San Diego was knowing that he would be responsible for the trolley.
“Just knowing the reputation of the trolley around the country,” he says. “I mean the kind of the birth of the resurgence of light rail in this country and high ridership.
“I remember hearing stories about the Blue Line and how it recovered its cost. Highest fare box recovery. And since coming here all of that is true. [It’s a] very efficient operation. Very well run. It’s amazing how manual the operation is.”
But the biggest challenge now says Jablonski isn’t maintaining the trolley’s success, it’s rebuilding the Blue Line.
“It’s almost 30 years old, and when it was built 30 years ago it was built on existing track. So we’ve got 90-pound rail out there that is 70 or 80 years old. We’ve got wooden railroad ties out there. We still have wooden ties.
“All our stations out there are at grade. So you know it’s time; we’ve got issues with rail getting old. The catenary is 30 years old. So we’re looking at a $320-million project to rebuild the 15 miles of the Blue Line.”
But with the funding ebbing on the operating side, I asked Jablonski how he planned to get enough money together for such a large capital project. His response was to go on a diet and focus on infrastructure.
“Well for the longest time, of course the easiest thing to do in this business when you’re having trouble on the operating side is to defer capital, as long as you’ve got the flexibility with funds to bring them over,” Jablonski says.
“But even with federal funds now, when they did away with operating assistance, but then they made the maintenance of the capital asset an eligible cost, so preventive maintenance is now—we could probably take, and we do, we probably take close to $30 million in our $50 million in formula funds in operating costs.
“So we’ve had to go on a diet of that. In fact, we’ve froze everything five years ago at those levels so we could try to produce more capital dollars.