BART Invites Transit Bloggers to Query GM Dugger, Part I

Bart_blogger.jpgGreg Dewar of N-Judah Chronicles, BART GM Dorothy Dugger, BART Spokesperson Linton Johnson.  Photo: Matthew Roth

Last week, BART hosted a brunch meeting for Bay Area transit bloggers, explicitly acknowledging that journalism is trending away from traditional media to online and niche outlets. Organized by BART spokesperson Linton Johnson, writers from Streetsblog, The SF Appeal, The Overhead Wire, N-Judah Chronicles, and Transbay Blog had the opportunity to ask BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger and her team unvarnished questions, to which we received fairly straightforward answers.

Johnson prefaced the meeting with some stats the agency is proud to publicize, such as the average salary of BART employees, which is $123,145 (40 percent of the total is benefits). BART station agents make 45 percent more than the national transit agency average, 3.8 percent higher than MTA; BART train operators make 37 percent above the national average, 25 percent above Bay Area average; Bart mechanics make 38 percent above national average, 13 percent above Bay Area average.  BART’s lowest paid employees, entry level BART police, make nearly $59,000 annually without overtime (not including benefits). BART police managers are the highest paid employees on average, making $146,468 with overtime (not including benefits).  Senior staff make considerably more, with Dugger the highest paid employee with over $300,000 annually.

Dugger said a lot of the right things, though some of her opinions will not make the regular transit advocates who read this blog happy.  Here’s a snippet:

For a state that is as urbanized as California, that has the policy objectives that the state has established for climate change, for environmental objectives, where transportation sources contribute–more than the national average–50 percent of the climate change problem, reducing vehicle miles traveled has got to be part of the solution.  Our economy can’t afford for that to happen simply by people stopping traveling.  We’re going to have to find smarter and cleaner ways for them to make the trips that they need to make. 

Continue reading excerpts from the meeting after the jump.

  • About the elimination of the State Transit Assistance (STA) fund.

With those policy objectives articulated by the state it’s unconscionable to me.  The money isn’t tracking the policy objectives.  I think California would be one of the only major urbanized states in the country to have no transportation funding support.

  • State of Good Repair.

Within APTA there are affinity groups.  Within the last year the major urban rail operators, particularly. Old metropolitan rail cities have been working together and with our legislative delegations to elevate the issue of State of Good Repair, which is harder frankly to get people exited about, particularly elected officials.  The New Starts issues tend to be a little more exciting, and hold the promise of bigger ribbon cuttings, serving new customers.  Paying more money to keep what you have in place just doesn’t tickle people’s imaginations quite as much, but is fundamental to our performance. 

  • Oakland Airport Connector.

The concept for the Oakland Airport Connector has always been that
revenues generated by the service will pay for whatever the cost of
operating and maintaining that service, as well as any gap closure on
the capital construction costs.  That’s a pretty tall order for a
transit system. There aren’t many that I’m aware of, I can’t think of
one today–there may be one system where the fares cover the entire
costs of operation and maintenance, but this is operations,
maintenance, reinvestment and potentially $100 million of capital costs
that are not funded through grants and other public funding.

In that instance, in my mind, it’s not a choice of directing money
toward operations or re-investment on the core system versus new
capacity, because the money that we are essentially borrowing against
only exists if we build the extension.

"Do you think that’s realistic?"

I think it is because of the nature of the service and the pricing that we’re proposing.

"Even with the new ridership numbers, down from 12,000 to 4,000?"

Yes, that was the purpose of the constrained ridership forecast that we
did–that was less of a ridership forecast and more of a financial
model that said ‘what is the least amount of riders that we need to
achieve in order to meet these financial objectives.  So it was more a
financial modeling exercise than an environmental impact/ridership
forecast.  So I think we’re going to do better than the numbers that we
are basing the financing on.

  • Fundamental operating issues.

We’re looking at some of the
fundamental assumptions we make about our service.  On weekends should
we close some stations entirely? Is skip stop service something that
makes sense?  The balance is between frequent enough service so that
customers continue to choose transit.  About 80 percent of our
customers tell us they have another option available to them to make
the trip they are choosing to make on BART and it will be no surprise
to this group that the most frequently cited option is that people have
a car available that they could use to make the trip.  We’re in a
pretty competitive marketplace.  We have a high percentage of
discretionary customers.

  • Parking at BART stations, specifically the charge that BART subsidizes
    parking for cars, which are driven by higher income riders.

We’re subsidizing every aspect of BART travel.  Our fares do not cover
100 percent of the cost to operate the system.  The transit trip is
being subsidized, parking is being subsidized, we participate
financially in supporting some of the connecting bus operators to our
system: Muni, AC Transit, 3CTA, TriDelta, WestCat.  The dollars that we
receive from our customers and the sales tax dollars are subsidizing
every aspect of the trip.  I think that’s important to keep in mind.

I think the biggest constraint to growth on our system is access and
unfortunately in some of the less densely populated portions of our
service area there aren’t great public transit options.  If we’re
providing a transit alternative that is taking discretionary travelers,
most of them reporting they could make the trip in a car if they chose
to, if part of our mission in terms of congestion, mobility,
environmental impacts, is to get people out of their cars and onto BART
for the bulk of their trip and the primary way they can get to BART
conveniently is by automobile, I think that is a reality of development
and patterns which we don’t control, but we’re increasingly tyring to
be a partner in influencing to support more walkable and bikeable
development around our stations and to maximize the benefit of the
public investment that is the BART system, we’re going to do that.

Automobile access to BART stations in certain geographic areas of our
system is a reality that helps us fulfill our bigger mission.

Market pricing: I think we’ve taken–and you described parking charges
as ‘toxic’ to some directors–we’ve made a first step toward charging
for parking, which was grounded in a policy objective that  had some
elements, but we’re certainly not there in terms of market rate
[parking].

When do we take a next step toward more market based parking? Again,
part of it is going to be demand and access constraints and also the
total value proposition that we’re offering the public when we’re in
such a competitive market.  I don’t think we’ve tested that as
aggressively as advocates of a true market-based parking system would
advocate, but I think we need to move incrementally, be mindful of some
of those areas with a distance-based fare that are paying the highest
fares for their trip on BART and the parking charge is another aspect
of making that trip on BART.  So I think we need to look at the pricing
of the whole trip and be mindful of what options customers have and not
get too ideological about segmenting out the different aspects of the
service.

I think there is something more than just trial and error, but some of
it is just trial and error.  Our current parking policies in the West
Bay require us to go out and look every six months at the fill rates
and the notion is that when the station is filling then you raise the
parking fee.  Is that driving customers away, are you sitting there
with empty spaces, then you know you’re pricing beyond the market.

Continue reading Part II here.

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