Light rail may not start on time — and Arpaio’s investigation of AG Goddard may never finish

Construction has nearly finished on most of the Valley's inaugural 20-mile light-rail track. Thank God. But that doesn't necessarily mean the trains will be ready to run on time.

Here's why.

Union officials tell me that the for-profit company that's supposed to be hiring and managing rail staff has frittered away so much time that the chances of having a contract in place by December are slim. Jim McCubbin, a vice president for the Amalgamated Transit Union's Local 1433 chapter, says that his union has been trying to get the company's attention for months — but has yet to even agree on basic ground rules for contract negotiations.

Why does that matter?

The Federal Transit Act expressly decrees that any transportation project getting federal funds must follow certain rules. One is that workers have the right to union representation — and that the union representing bus drivers in town has first dibs on new rail workers.

In essence: Local 1433 must be dealt with before any trains leave the proverbial station.

None of this should be news to Alternate Concepts Inc., or ACI, the Boston-based firm that Valley Metro hired to manage light-rail employees. The 19-year-old company opened a new light-rail line in Houston and a heavy-rail line in Puerto Rico; the company tells me that most of its 3,000 workers are, in fact, unionized.

Yet McCubbin says that ACI has done little, if anything, to begin serious negotiations — even though Valley Metro has been touting a December 27 grand opening for the rail line.

ACI sent over a tentative "memorandum of understanding," the first step toward opening contract negotiations, two months ago. McCubbin says the union immediately balked — for one thing, the memorandum set up Valley Metro's CEO as the arbiter of any dispute between the union and the private management company.

"That's like letting the fox decide which hens they're going to be having for dinner," McCubbin says. (Typically, contracts put such disputes before a federal mediator.) "The memorandum wasn't even close to what we needed."

But ACI has yet to offer another proposal — or even schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss problems with their initial plan. It wasn't until union officials fired off a plea for help last week to Phoenix City Council members that ACI suddenly seemed interested in setting a date.

At that point, ACI's Ron McKay sent a cover-your-ass e-mail to union officials, suggesting they were at fault.

"I have been trying to get in touch with you for the past week . . ." McKay wrote. "If there is a problem, please let me know. Otherwise, I am being urged to post the positions and begin the selection process." That final sentence, union officials believe, is a threat — "beginning the selection process" without a union contract would cut the union right out of the process.

And that, of course, would be illegal.

But now that so much time has been wasted, the alternative could be a tough slog for everybody.

As McCubbin explains, the memorandum is only the beginning. It sets ground rules for contract negotiations, and those can take months. (The local chapter's contract for bus service, for example, is 48 pages. This one should be just as lengthy.) Then, after union leadership signs off on a contract, it must go to the membership to be ratified — a process that takes two months, minimum.

So we're looking at a series of events that, by design, will take months on end, even as Valley Metro touts the fact that its trains are beginning their test runs.

Keep in mind, after they ink the contract, ACI still will have to hire the drivers. And then, of course, train them.

As someone who can't wait for light rail to start running, this whole thing makes me a little nervous.

I hardly felt better when I did some research.

ACI, the for-profit company hired to manage light rail here, was started by former executives at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. (Naturally, the company was a consultant on Boston's disastrous Big Dig project, although apparently not to blame for the "distrastrous" bit.) ACI won its five-year contract to manage rail workers here by submitting a dirt-cheap proposal to Valley Metro — $3 million below the agency's official estimate.

I wonder what they're scrimping on to handle the work so cheaply. Union negotiations? Or maybe communications. The company's Web site is a shell labeled "under progress" — getting information about what's going on, or even who to talk to, is not easy.

Just before my deadline, I got a call from Jane Daly, a principal at ACI. She told me she was "surprised" to hear that there are any problems with the union here.

"From our perspective, we feel things have gone very well," she said. Yes, the contract isn't signed, "but I don't think there are any major differences between the parties." She suggested that the union's real issue may be with its bus service contract.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske