Geary Subway? New Transbay Tube? Clean Trains? BART Candidates Discuss

SF Transit Riders hears from the six candidates for BART Board District 8, San Francisco

Photo: SFTR
Photo: SFTR

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It happened in the middle of the afternoon. A BART rider named ‘Melissa’ was attacked with a skateboard. “We’ve heard of the high-profile cases, the murders, but we don’t hear about all the other cases,” said Melanie Nutter, a candidate for BART District 8 who spoke at last night’s candidate forum in SoMa. Some young men were harassing Melissa, so “she said ‘back off,’ and was assaulted.” There are so many incidents that many people have stopped riding BART altogether, said Nutter.

Making BART feel safe was a major topic at the forum, which was sponsored jointly by the San Francisco Transit Riders and Seamless Bay Area.

BART District 8 contains the system’s busiest stations, including Balboa Park, Montgomery, and Embarcadero. Nick Josefowitz, who is running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, currently holds the seat, but will vacate it in the fall. Some forty transit advocates filled the San Francisco Transit Riders Folsom Street headquarters to hear from the six candidates who want to replace him.

District 8 has the busiest stations, but also covers the densest swath of San Francisco that is nowhere near BART. “I want rail service to the Westside,” said Brian Larkin, a candidate who worked for BART on staff and as a consultant. He pointed out that voters in the Richmond can’t actually use BART because they’re so far from existing stations. He envisions a new, two-level tunnel under Geary that will carry BART and Muni. “A generation of potential BART users will live and die if we don’t champion this right now.”

Emcee Beaudry Kock,
Emcee Beaudry Kock, Janice Li, Jonathan Lyens, Eva Chao, Melanie Nutter, Brian Larkin, and William Walker at last night’s forum

Beaudry Kock of Seamless Bay Area moderated the panel. He asked the candidates about many big-ticket ideas, such as a second Transbay Tube.

“You feel the crunch; we need it yesterday,” said Janice Li, a candidate who currently works for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. But, if there is going to be a second tube, should the priority be to make it compatible with BART’s non-standard, wide-gauge trains, or should it be standard gauge?

“Let’s have something standard now,” added Li. “Timeline for that? Today.”

Larkin said he’s ambivalent about gauge until the project is further along, but leans towards standard gauge because of its compatibility with non-BART systems and the fact that it can take advantage of disused rail lines in the East Bay for future extensions.

Either way, “the longer we delay the more expensive it becomes,” said Jonathan Lyens, who worked in city government and advocacy and has the endorsement of the San Francisco Democratic Party, among others. “As to the gauge, that conversation is sadly probably ten years away, but we probably need to have both.”

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Chao and Nutter

“Yes, yes, and yes,” said Melanie Nutter, the candidate who was Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment under Mayor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Edwin Lee. She was also Deputy District Director for the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She argued that her connections to Pelosi and Newsom will help in the funding fight for a second tube. “We need that tube to meet future demand. I’m disheartened that [even though] the ‘fleet of the future’ will have more doors, and trains can run closer together, … we’ll still max that out in ten years.” Eva Chao stressed the importance of having a second tube to minimize economic damage from a major earthquake. “There will be a huge one in the next thirty years, as big as point-nine or greater–by building another tube we can assure that if something happens to the bridge or our main tube that we can have a second to use, so that timeline should be as soon as possible.”

But what about some of the fundamental problems with the existing system, such as the drop in weekend ridership and the feeling that the system isn’t safe from crime? “We need to lower fares during nights and weekends,” said William Walker, a native of the Bay Area who has worked for SFMTA and Los Angeles Metro (where he lived for five years, without a car, he added). He also wants more ‘eyes and ears’ available in stations and platforms to help make riders, especially late-night riders, feel comfortable and safe. “For every police officer, you need to add an unarmed ambassador helping folks ride to and from.”

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Larkin and Walker

“Many women have come to me and said ‘I won’t ride BART at night anymore. I literally don’t feel safe,’ said Nutter. She agreed with Walker that there should be unarmed ambassadors, but also said “we need to fill the 26 open BART police positions.” She added that those officers also need training in de-escalation and cultural sensitivity.

“The riders are telling us the experience is terrible,” said Lyens. “I would like to increase lighting in our stations… and we need to increase community service officers, so people always have a BART employee in sight.” Lyens, who is blind, also stressed the importance of having clean and accessible elevators for the disabled. He said elevator breakdowns should be considered an emergency and that BART “must start to invest in the rider experience and bring riders back.”

The candidates agreed that many of BART’s biggest problems are a reflection of larger societal ills. “It’s not like you get off at Powell and you feel like you can drop your guard. Wrongo. Things are tough on the streets too,” said Larkin, who added that part of keeping BART clean comes down to setting up good management structures, incentives, and review processes for station attendants. Li stressed bringing social workers and outside organizations into the system to deal with chronic problems such as homelessness on BART trains. Lyens wants more attention put on securing BART from outside ills. “We need to do a better job of hardening our system, we need to replace our fare gates, and bring the elevators within the fare gate,” he said.

Nutter charged that some of BART’s safety woes come down to a failure of culture. She said Melissa, the woman who was assaulted with the skateboard, was unable to get help from BART staff, train operators, or the public, which she said is part of a greater failure in BART management. “She couldn’t find BART police, had to wait hours for EMTs… what can BART do to help build a culture of supporting each other?” she asked. Figuring out how to change that culture, she implied, will be key to making BART feel safe and secure.

  • Come on, it’s the same old, tired topics that amount to nothing. I’ve been hearing about a second tube and Geary rail for the 18 years I’ve lived here. Never, EVER going to happen. Try fixing the problems with the existing system like the filth, neglect and safety issues. I can tell you one thing, the BART system I rode in 2000 is far worse than the BART system I ride now.

  • robo94117

    Both BART and MUNI are hopeless messes. They both are incapable of running efficient transit systems. There are eternal problems, and eternal excuses. Go to any major European city and enjoy the fast, frequent, quiet, clean transit. When you return, you realize what rolling tragedies our transit systems are.

  • david vartanoff

    Yes, BART and or Muni need to be extended out Geary. NOW.
    On the other topic, BART and Muni must find ways to evict the troublemakers without turning SF into a police state. Much of this is indeed outside BART’s remit, but the least they must do is push the problems back out of the stations and trains.

  • voltairesmistress

    I think the second transbay tube will definitely happen, because the need and numbers demand it. But the Geary subway? I think you are right on that one. The number of riders is not there, and the BRT may alleviate travel delays anyway.

  • John French

    Certainly there’s no need for a four-tracked subway carrying redundant light rail and regional rail services to serve the moderate density single-family homes of the westside, just so people can ride BART instead of Muni.

    There should be no difference between BART and Muni from the passenger’s point of view. Same fare plan, same brand, easy and free transfers. We shouldn’t build extremely expensive redundant infrastructure because of organizational deficiencies.

  • LazyReader

    – BART’s falling apart
    – BART is unsafe for typical riders
    – BART is decades behind on it’s necessary maintenance
    – They’re raising taxes to pay for BART rather than raise fares
    BART uses apologetic tweets to convey the message their stuff’s falling apart. The agency is arguing that it needs more money, but it’s really making the case against rail transit technology. New tunnels & transbay tubes are decades-long projects. And San Francisco will never see that money because it’s broke. City’s 10 Billion in the hole financially. Instead of doing basic maintenance or expanding capacity where it’s crucial, BART spent billions of dollars to build new lines that aren’t needed and in the long run will only add to its long-term maintenance problems. The 6.5 billion dollar San Jose extension? Why? they already have commuter rail to that region. The Oakland airport connection, that cost half a billion dollars and charges $6 fares while buses cost a third of that. Outside of places with Tokyo, Manhattan like densities, no city can
    really afford to run a passenger rail system, and those who try are
    going to find themselves in the same bind as BART is in today. While urban planners in the 1990’s couldn’t predict the tech boom and
    subsequent population boom in the Bay Area, there are things that they
    could have projected and already knew alongside Rail lobbyists and engineering firms. Rail infrastructure has a life expectancy of 30 years, after that you either have to totally replace it or painstakingly refurbish it or risk suffering numerous delays, accidents, and other problems. New York’s subway system went thru such a crisis in the 1980s, it fixed the problems by spending billions of dollars and going heavily into debt. Now 30 years later, the debt remains, and the delays and breakdowns have returned. Punctuated in today’s news of severe flooding and waterfalls of…sewage. And they’ll never be fixed either. Since Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio continue to argue over who should pay for it. Those subways are contained entirely within New York City. They were
    built by New York City. They are owned by New York City. Yet New York
    City mayor Bill de Blasio argues that all of the projected $37 billion cost of restoring the subways is a state responsibility. After all, ridership is declining even without raising fares. I suspect
    the respective city’s and states will come up with band-aid solutions to the subway’s
    problems.

  • david vartanoff

    Subways are a vital public service like potable water, sewage, roadways, and all the rest that mark civilization.
    As such the costs are borne by the entire resident population because everyone benefits from the economic opportunities they enable. While I do NOT excuse waste such as the Oakland Airport Connector, or the extension to San Jose, the fact is that our (highly corrupted) decision making process authorized them. As to declining ridership, yes, if service deteriorates, riders seek alternatives. As citizens we can either refuse to fix things until we achieve total dysfunction, or step up and repair/upgrade/expand. I vote to move forward rather than simply sink into the slime.

  • LazyReader

    Contrary to what people might think, one of the main causes of the maintenance crises is not a shortage of funds, but too much money spent in the wrong places. Since transit systems rely on tax dollars for most of their funds instead of user fees; politicians have a huge say in how to spend that money. The result is a huge perversion of spending priorities. Politicians like cutting ribbons, but they hate to sweep brooms. That is… they like spending on new infrastructure rather than undergo care and maintenance on what they already have. And BART has LITTLE priorty on fixing it’s preexisting systems and seems only interested in expanding infrastructure empires like the old 19th century rail tycoons. In addition to debts from building, maintaining and operating it’s rail transit systems, many transit agencies have public unions. They have unfunded pension and health care obligations in staggering levels. Some of which are DOUBLE their operating budgets. Yet their discipline is so lapse they’re spending on more rail. Transit agencies should make a priority of paying down their debts and unfunded pension and health care obligations. Agencies should not saddle future taxpayers with those obligations, especially when there is a real chance that existing transit systems will be completely replaced by shared driverless cars and buses in probably a decade.

  • crazyvag

    Well, 2nd tube could just run down Geary. I mean, would they really just end it in SOMA?

    With regard to Geary, one perspective is to look at the bus lines with highest ridership as good candidates for rail. While Outer Richmond might not have the ridership, one could argue that running BART to around 19th Ave would be a good compromise.

  • John French

    I’m not saying there shouldn’t be rail. I’m arguing against BART, and its expensive unique technology.

    Light rail technology (Muni metro) is a better fit for the ridership levels on Geary. With a transfer to the market street subway (and BART transbay tube) at Montgomery and a potential future connection via Transbay to a new tube carrying some future iteration of Caltrain.

    The key is to stop thinking about BART, Muni, Caltrain, etc as separate systems. That leads to redundant and very expensive infrastructure like BART’s San Jose extension and bad experiences for riders who can’t make their entire trip on one agency’s trains.

    Instead, you should be able to connect between BART and Caltrain as easily as between the Fremont and Dublin lines on BART: a timed transfer with no fare gates, no separate tickets, and good signage and schedules that show the connection. This can be done without spending billions on redundant/overkill BART tracks.

  • crazyvag

    Well, there are some BART extension that I think are ok. Extending BART to SJ is reasonable way to connect SJ. Also, Livermore BART extension to an ACE station is a reasonable one.

    The 2nd tube has a problem in Oakland because that area doesn’t have a downtown station equivalent of Transbay in SF. You got Jack London Square which is far from downtown and Emeryville. As such, it even if you made 2nd Transbay tube Caltrain compatible, where would it go? Use Union Pacific tracks going to north? Use Union Pacific tracks going south? They’ll need to be electric and we know UP doesn’t like electric things given the hoops Caltrain had to go to.

    As sad as it is, there are too many missing pieces for second tube to be Caltrain compatible unless Oakland gets its butt in gear and clean things up over there. Sadly, Oakland has it too good with BART and lacks the political power to get the money to do anything.

    But if we had lots of money, my dream would be to create an underground city tunnel that connects Emeryville and Coliseum lines, and creates a new station underground under the existing Oakland downtown stations. With connecting tracks to 2nd transbay tube tracks.

  • embarcadero

    Can they at least agree to come up with new pipe dreams each year? Taunting us with the same unrealizable dreams each year seems cruel.

    How about flying saucers for all SF commuters?

  • John French

    Extending BART to SJ isn’t totally unreasonable, though the redundant connection to Santa Clara (paralleling Caltrain) is questionable. Upgrading the ACE corridor to run a BART-level service (similar to eBART) to a transfer station in Fremont would probably have been cheaper (although fewer good places for stations along that route).

    I agree on Livermore, although I’m generally opposed to BART extensions (particularly when they’re extending the core BART system instead of BRT or eBART), it makes sense when there’s an obvious missed connection like ACE.

    It’s definitely unfortunate that what non-BART passenger rail exists in Oakland is on UP tracks which wouldn’t be amenable to Caltrain. That said, it might not be the end of the world for Caltrain to just terminate in downtown Oakland with a well-coordinated transfer to BART. Could the BART system in Oakland even handle the extra trains going through a second tube?

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