BART Mulls Options for Spending (or Saving) Small Budget Surplus

rockridge_BART_small.jpgPhoto: Matthew Roth
BART Board meetings over the past year have been tumultuous, from the public fury over the Oscar Grant killing, which included the arrest of a protester for dousing BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger with red paint, to vigorous debate over whether to spend stimulus funds on the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC), to negotiations that narrowly averted a union strike that would have shut down the system and likely paralyzed the Bay Area's transportation network.

What a difference a year makes. Yesterday, BART's meeting was lightly attended and only a few members of the public gave testimony.

Staff presented a $777.4 million Fiscal Year 2011 preliminary Capital Budget [PDF], up significantly from FY 2010's $584.8 million. Most of the year-over-year increase is attributable to approximately $136 million more spent to expand the system this coming year compared to last year, with projects such as eBART, the Warm Springs Extension, the Silicon Valley Extension and the Oakland Airport Connector expected to go into some form of planning, design or build phase. According to the budget presentation, the increase of capital spending will come from state and federal grants that have already been in the pipeline.

Over the long-term, however, BART's capital outlook is sobering. Staff said the agency faces a projected $6.8 billion shortfall of capital funding needs over the next 25 years, a stat that is consistent with other transit operators around the region. This daunting problem has prompted the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the region's transit planning body, to start a 2-year Transit Sustainability Project, an attempt to rectify this funding scenario.

T_2035_Cap_Funding.jpgLong-range capital funding picture isn't too rosy. Image: BART.
The longest debate of the meeting centered on how BART should spend an unexpected operating budget surplus. Because lawmakers in Sacramento allocated over $400 million of State Transit Assistance funds to transit operators across California, BART received $26 million it hadn't previously budgeted. After paying down its deficit, the agency is left with $18.4 million, of which staff has recommended putting half into reserves.

BART's Board of Directors spent the better part of an hour discussing what to do with the remainder of the money: whether to give some of it to riders through a temporary fare rollback, spend it on maintenance and facility upkeep or, perhaps, put it into reserves for a rainier day.

Staff presented the board with various spending packages for the remaining $9 million, including one with a fare reduction emphasis, one with a facility improvements emphasis and one with a financial stability emphasis.

Board Chair James Fang, who represents part of San Francisco and is up for re-election to the board this year, has publicly recommended a fare rollback of up to four months, which he believes would not only show kindness to riders, but help stimulate the economy.

"I think that stimulus into the economy is good not just for our economy but the entire district and that's why I'm an ardent supporter of the fare rollback," he said.

Director Lynette Sweet, who represents parts of Berkeley, El Cerrito, Oakland and San Francisco, urged her fellow directors to save the money for upcoming operating deficits, which could arrive as early as next year, according to BART staff budget projections.

"Last year at this time we were looking at a much different picture, a much bleaker picture," said Sweet, who described the current budget situation as an "embarrassment of riches." Rather than spend the surplus now, she argued, saving it could help the agency arrive at the "same situation next year, being embarrassed by these riches."

Board members will vote at their June meeting to approve the FY 11 budget and resolve the operating surplus issue.

Oakland Airport Connector

Despite the magnitude of the debate around the Oakland Airport Connector project over the past year, and the stern action the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) took by denying BART $70 million because the agency hadn't conducted proper civil rights and equity analysis on the project, BART's board spent barely 10 minutes discussing a proposal to authorize General Manager Dugger to adjust the OAC contract for inflation.

This move will add nearly $3 million to the price tag of the project and would placate the remaining two contractors who have committed to continue until at least June 7th, assuming BART finds funding to fill the hole left by the FTA civil rights action.

During the public comment period for this agenda item, Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm and one of the people who filed the initial complaint with the FTA about the project, announced that his non-profit had secured funding from a national foundation to conduct an in-depth study of the Hegenberger corridor. TransForm has hired Kittelson & Associates (KAI), a national transportation consulting firm to conduct a more thorough study of alternatives to the Oakland Airport Connector and to provide more detailed analysis of bus rapid transit options instead of the elevated tramway design currently in favor with BART staff.

"What we had heard from many of you when we presented our RapidBART proposal was that it wasn't detailed enough, that it was a sketch-level analysis," Cohen told BART's board. "We're being supported by a national foundation to provide that level of detail that many of you asked for and were never given."

TransForm formally requested that BART participate as a partner in the study and turn over the data that was collected during the development of OAC as well as the data that was collected during the analysis of the RapidBART service. GM Dugger said after the meeting it was too early to decide whether they would participate.

After Cohen's presentation, BART Director Gail Murray, who represents Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek, asked somewhat pointedly, "I just wanted to know if you are also bringing this forward to AC Transit because we are rail people, they're bus people. So why wouldn't you also involve them?"

Cohen said AC Transit and numerous other partners are invited, though he jumped on Murray's comment to illustrate what he considered the problem with the project. "I think the framing of the question is the problem we have here in the region. You are rail people and they are bus people and we didn't evaluate what's the best thing for that corridor, we evaluated what's the best rail project for that corridor," said Cohen.

The TransForm study will parallel BART staff's mad scramble to find funding to replace the federal money, a process the advocates and Director Tom Radulovich, who represents San Francisco, said wasn't happening in public and wasn't transparent enough. They accused BART of not following the spirit of the federal civil rights guidelines that had gotten the agency in this problematic situation in the first place.

"This action today assumes that that capital project will go forward exactly as it is," said Radulovich. "If we're really serious about [civil rights], let's not just do a bunch of meetings and do what you were going to do before. Use what you learn in that process to reshape the project."

The hasty action on the matter was enough to prompt Director Bob Franklin, who represents Berkeley and previously supported the OAC, to abstain from voting, though in the end all other directors except for Radulovich voted to give staff the authorization.

GM Dugger called the funding plan proposal a "work in progress" and said BART is working with regional and state funding partners to identify replacement funding. On the issue of public process and the FTA civil rights guidelines, Dugger said they were working diligently to meet their obligations.

"I have every confidence that the funding plan will be extensively debated in public," said Dugger. "In my 18 years at BART, I can't think of a project that has had longer public debate."

She said that as soon as staff members have the plan, they will present it to the board for public discussion, likely at the June or July meetings.