Guest Editorial: The Time Has Come To Rebuild BART

Is BART's infras ready for a top-to-bottom revamp? Image: Wikimedia Commons
Is BART infra ready for a top-to-bottom revamp? Image: Wikimedia Commons

When BART was built in the late 1960s, it was the most advanced subway system in the world. But what was once state of the art technology is now almost obsolete and unable to cope with the ever increasing demands made on the system by booming ridership.

BART trains still run on a 1967 computer system which causes 25 percent of BART’s major delays and limits how many trains BART can run per hour. The basic infrastructure of BART’s electrical system has remained unchanged since it was first installed in the late 1960s, and the failure of which has caused the recent shutdown of Pittsburg-Bay Point station. Many of BART’s escalators date back to the start of the system, and can no longer handle crush loads, inclement weather, or even heavy regular usage.

BART’s decaying infrastructure is the result of decades of underinvestment and a culture that had focused on costly and imprudent exurban expansion over maintenance of the core system. But over the past few years, a new generation of leadership has come to power at BART. This leadership was elected by Bay Area voters with a mandate to fix the existing infrastructure first, before spending money on glitzy new extensions.

As a result of this new leadership, over the past 10 years BART has transformed how it maintains its train fleet, nearly doubling the number of miles each train car can travel before it experiences a breakdown. Last year, BART even led the country in the proportion of its train fleet that was operational and ready to ride on the average weekday morning.

Not only is BART doing maintenance better than before, it’s also doing it more cost-effectively. BART now has both the lowest operating cost per passenger mile and the lowest proportion of its operating cost paid for by government subsidy of any major US transit system.

Despite these improvements, no one at BART is satisfied with the current state of its infrastructure or its service. Many of us wish different decisions had been made in the 1990s and 2000s . But now is not the time to point fingers at the mistakes made by previous generations, but to throw ourselves into tackling the problems they have left us to secure BART for future generations.

Which is why, this November, BART plans to ask the voters to double down on their commitment to rebuilding the core BART system with a $3.5 billion safety and reliability bond measure. This will be the first time BART has asked the voters to fund a major reinvestment program in its core system since BART opened all those decades ago.

The bond proceeds will be spent rebuilding and upgrading BART’s old and obsolete core systems (train control, electrical, escalators, track and tunnels) with modern technology. These investments are needed to ensure safe and reliable service for BART’s 450,000 daily riders. The bond measure is free of costly and imprudent projects that will stretch the system outwards, because our highest priority has to be getting our existing system into shape.

Rebuilding BART’s core systems with modern technology won’t just help existing BART riders. It will also allow BART to significantly increase capacity, to the tune of almost 200,000 daily riders, by running more trains faster and closer together. To put that in context, that’s 3x Caltrain’s daily ridership and larger than the daily ridership of Muni Metro in San Francisco or AC Transit in the East Bay. Indeed, this bond investment plan would represent the single largest increase in public transit capacity in the history of the Bay Area.

As importantly, these investments also make sense for those who rarely or never ride BART such as car commuters or bus riders. A BART that doesn’t function or doesn’t keep up with the Bay Area’s growth will only funnel more cars onto already overly congested streets and highways. Indeed, studies have shown that, in the absence of BART, commute times along some of the Bay Area’s busiest highways would triple from already long waits.

Today, BART stands at the edge of a precipice. BART riders and the Bay Area as a whole cannot afford another decade relying on its aging and inefficient systems built in the 1960s. Without meaningful investment now, ever slower and less reliable transportation will hold back the development of our region and the ability for each Bay Resident to thrive. The time has come to rebuild BART from the ground up.

Nick Josefowitz represents District 8, which includes portions of San Francisco, on the BART Board of Directors.

A version of this editorial appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

  • murphstahoe

    I’m legitimately curious – you don’t have to get super specific if you have a privacy concern – is your destination end shuttle VTA/AC or private company shuttle? What’s the final destination?

    Both stops underscore the lousy routing of BART there – Fremont BART is as close to the hills as possible away from anything. It’s not even really close to much residential, just plopped in the middle of a set of random strip malls, in a place where bus service goes to die.

  • OaktownPRE

    I work smack dab there and I know of what I speak…

  • OaktownPRE

    I don’t think you’ve ever gotten off at Fremont BART. There’s plenty of housing and it’s close to what passes for a “center” in Fremont. Your gripe is with suburbia. Legitimate, but not BART’s fault.

  • murphstahoe

    Come on – quit teasing me by not answering this shuttle question. And as I said, I used to ride from Great America to take BART home from Fremont whenever Caltrain had a breakdown, I am very familiar with the area. The density of housing there is pretty low – not Dublin/Pleasanton low, but one side of the tracks. Suffice to say, it it was dense or walkable the parking lot wouldn’t be jammed.

  • Amanda Clark

    I just moved from Fremont to Portland, TYVM, and used to rely on transit exclusively in both Santa Clara County and in Fremont. I’ve biked several times to the (still incomplete) Warm Springs station and taken pictures (and got chased off the property once by what I think was the one BART director who carries a concealed handgun). Dude, I’ve poured over old maps of Washington Township looking at defunct rail lines and looking for signs of interurbans. GFY.

  • mslorenzo

    This isn’t NYC. BART isn’t currently built to support 24 hour service. The proposed measure doesn’t seek funds to enable 24 hour service.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    I get that everyone wants to put their genitals in the mashed potatoes. The problem with that, of course, is that we end up with a pretty gross bowl of mashed potatoes that’s not appetizing to anybody! Most other cities across the world somehow manage to make their transit systems work. The SF Bay Area had about the same population as the country of Sweden, and yet their transit system works amazing. Trains, subways and buses all have coordinated schedules, fares, and maps making the system seamless and very convenient for the passengers. I don’t think the convenience is even in the vocabulary of any of our transportation infrastructure planners! We have a billion dollar central subway being built for 1 mile that will require a 10 minute walk to transfer to/from Bart. Poor management structure of our whole transportation system breeds this type of dysfunction.

  • RichLL

    Sweden has a population of about 14 million, so 2-3 times that of the Bay Area. And Sweden is far more homogeneous, being 86% white and overwhelmingly middle class.

    That said, you’re right, SF Bay Area transit is mostly a joke and a big part of that is the disjointed, fragmented and parochial nature of the systems.

    And that in turn derives from the fact that the Bay Area isn’t even a city or a county. It’s 9 counties and dozens of cities, each of them its own petty fiefdom, bureaucracy and with its own tax-raising powers.

    To get from Santa Cruz to Vallejo nvolves crossing half a dozen counties each with its own transit system, so multiples changes. Or you can just jump in your car and do the trip in half the time

    The only unified transport system in the Bay Area is the seamless free network of freeways and highways. That is why 70% of commutes in the Bay Area are by car – not much less than the 76% number nationally.

  • murphstahoe

    Santa Cruz to Vallejo is the 17 bus to Amtrak then am Amtrak connector. 2 changes, one internal to a single operator.

    Your point stands despite the bad example

  • RichLL

    I assume you mean Capital Corridor and that is, what, 6 trains a day? 8? How long a wait if you miss one?

    Just the train portion from San Jose to Martinez takes 2 hours to go 60 miles. Maybe 4 hours total with the connector buses? And you still have the “first and last mile” problem.

    I am seeing a 75 minute trip by car right now. Care to tell us how long your “two buses plus a train” takes on a Sunday morning?

    Or let’s make it more interesting, How about Ben Lomond to American Canyon? 2 hours by car. By transit?

    As you admit. The point stands.

  • The population of Sweden is indeed close to the population of the Bay Area. So is the population of Austria, another country with excellent public transportation.

    Sweden–9.85 million
    Bay Area (nine counties) –7.44 million
    Austria–8.58 million

    Both Vienna and Stockholm also have miles of pedestrian-only streets and very good bicycle infrastructure, though not up to Dutch quality. They also both tax gasoline at a much higher rate than we do. In US $:

    Sweden–$3.10/gallon
    Austria–$2.46/gallon
    California (local, state, federal total)–$.59/gallon

    When a car is purchased, these are the sales tax fees:
    Sweden–25%
    Austria–20%
    California–8.4%

    In Stockholm there is a congestion charge with the proceeds going to public transit. Vienna divided its center into 5 pie-shaped wedges with no cars allowed to cut through from one wedge to another, slashing car traffic in the city center. Sweden has an annual road tax based on CO2 vehicle emissions; Austria has an annual vehicle tax based on engine power. As a result, Sweden and Austria have much more money to spend on transit, and their citizens have much more motivation not to drive.

    Government spending on transit–
    Sweden–$958 per capita
    Austria–$740 per capita
    US–$181 per capita

    While I won’t argue that many of our transportation problems are due to dysfunctional management on many levels, we also don’t devote the resources to transit, nor do we actively discourage driving, the way that countries with excellent transit do.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    There’s some good discussion here. Is there any hope that the author will return to respond to any of these questions?

  • crazyvag

    Well, BART recovery ratio is high because they don’t maintain their rails. Caltrain is constantly replacing ties and tamping the rails. BART has to shut down tracks over the weekend because rail hasn’t been replaced since it was installed, and trains have to run slowly due to bumpy ride.

  • Disqusted

    Sunday a.m. service must start by at least 6 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. You can not take BART to the airport on Sunday morning unless your flight leaves after 11 a.m. There is no transbay public transportation that can get people where they want to go until almost 9 a.m. This means everybody must drive across the bay or to the airport for Sunday morning flights. Ridiculous! We paid for the system, we pay for the tickets, we deserve service on Sunday mornings!

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