The ongoing fiasco on BART's Pittsburg/Bay Point line — where a still-unidentified electrical glitch has fried semiconductors and knocked almost a tenth of BART's aging, overtaxed fleet out of service; the agency is out of spare parts and won't have any new semiconductors until August — has laid bare a few truths about the Bay Area's aging regional rail line, all of which its riders will find inconvenient.
Though its Twitter account is staffed by a Millennial engaging riders' angry tweets in a Millennial way — winning BART positive press nationwide; be on the lookout for a BART emoji before too long — BART is still using Nixon-era infrastructure to meet Obama-era needs. A transit system designed to carry 100,000 people now handles 430,000 every day (a load that, back in 2010, set records).
BART is broken, and the people who will have to pay to fix it are the same ones who stuff into crowded trains for the pleasure of arriving late to work: us.
This November, voters in the counties served by BART — including San Francisco, Alameda, and San Mateo — will likely be asked to pass a $3.5 billion bond measure, money needed to lay new track, upgrade electrical systems and train controls, and generally prevent commuting disasters like the current one — at least in theory.
(Why can't BART pay for this right now? More than half of BART's $1.56 billion annual budget goes to keeping the system in daily operation — including $470 million on salaries and benefits — and can't be used on capital projects, funding for which traditionally has come from the state and federal governments, both of which appear to be done with paying for things like BART.)
And right now, BART is on the edge: Polling conducted earlier in the year showed 69 percent support for a BART bond. Sixty-six percent is required for the measure to pass.
This could help explain BART's use of its official Twitter account last week to engage with riders directly and explain their woes are due to an old system in need of new money. That refreshing frankness did buy BART some of the goodwill it needs to transform into votes, a local political consultant told SF Weekly. But the “goodwill was immediately undermined by the most savvy voters, who see it — accurately — as the opening salvo in the educational campaign that BART will be running in support of its anticipated bond measure.”
And BART has plenty of enemies who will remind voters of that — as well as recent ills like the 2013 strike, which interrupted service for several days in July and November 2013. (At the time, BART said it could not give workers their requested raises because the money was needed for capital improvements, a statement that rings hollow ahead of a big bond ask.)
“When you have a breakdown in the core system like this, and they do not have the spare parts on hand to repair them, it raises serious questions about their priorities,” says state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), who has nine BART stations in his district, and who won office after a campaign excoriating BART's union workers for striking.
Many of his constituents “are furious with BART,” he added. “Their PR shenanigans are not a surprise given the low esteem in which BART is held … they're being hyperpolitical as they look ahead, trying to raise billions in new taxes.”
It almost makes you scream for a modern-day Bechtel to retake control of its creation and give us a train system that works. Almost.