BART’s Aging Infrastructure Needs an Upgrade

by Minh Nguyen

When Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) began operations in 1972, it heralded an age of reliable and efficient transit for Bay Area cities. BART was to replace rail coverage following the end of electrified streetcar service in the East Bay, and it brought the Bay Area up to par with rail service in comparable metro regions in the U.S. Today, BART has an annual ridership of 126 million and serves four Bay Area counties. However, major infrastructure upgrades are critical for the long-term viability of the Bay Area’s main transit corridor.

Ask most Bay Area residents, and they will tell you that BART trains and stations need an update. To improve transit efficiency and ensure passenger safety, BART must undergo major infrastructure upgrades on its tracks, tunnels, and stations. BART is looking to improve the underwater tunnel system in the bay, build new stations, and upgrade existing stations through its “Station Modernization Program.”

To pay for these improvements, the Board of Directors of BART is currently considering a bond measure for the 2016 November ballot. BART intends to raise up to $4.8 billion through increased property taxes in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties. Revenue raised will only be spent on fixed real property improvements. In other words, revenue would be restricted to infrastructure and cannot be used on other overhead, such as salaries. Because of California tax law, a measure would take a 2/3 vote to pass, meaning that BART has a steep uphill political climb to secure these crucial funds.

What critics of the proposed measure fail to acknowledge are the positive externalities of public transit and the decline of transit infrastructure as a priority for Californian cities. Much of the critique takes the form of fiscal responsibility arguments. Critics say BART must reduce what they believe are exorbitant compensation for many of its employees and must hold itself accountable for lack of foresight that has led to infrastructure deterioration.

Although BART designers failed to implement a long-term savings plan for a now critical overhaul of the system, transit riders must not be held hostage by bureaucratic hindrance of infrastructure improvement. Perhaps the question of who should pay for long-run improvements should be set aside for now, and locals can step up by increasing their own property taxes for this crucial round of infrastructural overhaul. Or perhaps BART can partner with tech companies to find innovative funding streams; for instance, San Francisco and East Bay cities in the BART district can insist on higher use fees when tech companies use public bus stops. These thoughts aside, BART directors are deciding whether or not to put a measure on the ballot this November so voters can ultimately decide on a new tax bond, and they have until August 2016 to do so.

Minh is an MPP Candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. He is currently working with BART on a project evaluating its park and ride system.