To the protesters rallying to improve transit at UC Berkeley Wednesday, trying to park around campus is a savage game of musical chairs.
A skit during the lunchtime demonstration had UC employees and students wearing cardboard car costumes and elbowing each other for seats. Playful as it was, the skit was meant to direct the attention of university officials to a more serious problem — the difficulty of finding parking spaces on campus and the lack of adequate public transit alternatives.
“We have to ask for parking permits, but it’s more like a hunting license because there’s not enough space for parking,” said Tanya Smith of Berkeley’s University Professional & Technical Employees Union.
The Coalition of University Employees organized the rally in front of California Hall on campus to hand over a petition with 1,600 signatures to the Vice Chancellor of Business and Administrative Services Horace Mitchell.
Seven labor unions, the Sierra Club, student groups and Councilmember Kriss Worthington joined the ranks.
Norah Foster, chair of CUE, said the protesters had two main demands: the formation of a task force of students, faculty and staff for unilateral decision-making and an immediate distribution of free “Class Passes” for employees to free up parking space and improve air quality.
Class Passes, paid for as part of regular tuition fees, entitle students to unlimited rides on AC transit and campus shuttles.
Mitchell graciously accepted the petitions and told the crowd the university was on their side.
“The university takes very seriously issues related to transit,” he said. “But it’s complicated. This is not an excuse not to provide parking, but to say that we’re working on different aspects of this problem.”
Mitchell said his office was ready to open a dialogue with employees’ groups on the proposals his office has been working on. He expects they can all find a solution within a month, he said.
Smith said now that the unions handed in their petitions, they were prepared to enter into talks with the university. But she was skeptical about how seriously the university would take their demands.
Although she was heartened by Mitchell’s warm tone, Smith said the university has in the past given her the cold shoulder.
“UC has always given lip service to transit,” she said. “I wrote in asking for information in a letter dated Oct. 26 and I still haven’t gotten a response from the university.”
Susana Hinojosa, who works at the library, agreed it was about time the university addressed the traffic situation.
“For employees, transporation is horrible and traffic is horrible,” she said. “Employees need to get to work. If we didn’t the university wouldn’t run.”
Speakers at the rally were particularly bitter about the $2.5 million profit the university made from employee parking permits from 1999-2000. The skit showed “Gramma Parking Permit” hoarding her cash and unwilling to give up even just a little wad to pay for more parking or fund bus and BART passes.
Nadeson Permaul, the university’s Director of Transporation , said UC Berkeley has invested the $2.5 million in long-term projects to build more parking: 150 spaces that should be ready by this summer and another 550 spots for 2004.
Permaul acknowledged that the university could be doing more. Right now subsidies for transportation only amount to $15 for the first six months and $5 a month thereafter.
“They are extremely modest,” said Permaul. “The subsidy needs to be bigger to accommodate the cost of living, I agree. But the question is how to fund it.”
Currently, the City of Berkeley gives each employee an “Eco Pass” for unlimited rides on AC Transit, but Permaul said the $60 per person the city pays is too much for the university.
He added that the university’s situation is more complicated because it also has to work with BART, which surveys show is the most popular form of public transportation among employees.
The university does have other transportation programs in place, though. Employees can buy transit passes pre-tax and pay for parking on a daily basis to save money on the days they do not park.
If employees want a Class Pass, said Permaul, they need to tax themselves just as the students do. “The students have voted to assess themselves mandated fees of $18 per semester. The employees who are using pressure to get the university to pick up the tab. Where is the money going to come from?”
Although the university ran free shuttles between campus and the Rockridge BART station last year, the pilot program was scrapped in December. Permaul said the shuttle service was not meeting its goal of tempting employees from Contra Costa County to use public transportation. Instead, shuttle riders tended to be local people who used to ride AC Transit to work and now did not pay fares.
When AC Transit asked for more money to cover these losses, Permaul said the university stopped the program. Even though the program made a lot of locals happy, the shuttle did not achieve its goal and would have become too expensive.
“We have a financial model,” said Permaul.
Contact reporter Jai-Rui Chong at firstname.lastname@example.org