SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- BART General Manager Robert "Bob" Powers inherited a transit agency that has been battered by public opinion. The professional engineer with more than 20 years' experience in the public transportation took over the helm of BART last July. Since then, Powers has been confronted by many of the issues that have troubled riders in recent years.
ABC7's Building a Bay Area contributor and Chronicle insider Phil Matier caught up with BART's general manager at Civic Center station to talk to him about his priorities for BART in the next year.
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On fare evasion, Powers says new, "hardened" pay gates are coming to stations.
Phil Matier: "If you could wave a magic wand, and make something change around here, what would it be?"
Bob Powers: "Right here? The fare gates, new fare gates right here, that are your height, my height, that open up."
Phil Matier: "Like that guys jumping over right there."
Bob Powers: "Exactly, that wouldn't happen with the new fare gates, Phil. A fare gate my height? He wouldn't have been able to get out of the system, or get into the system."
It is also Power's biggest goal for the year.
Phil Matier: "What do you see as your biggest goal for this year?"
Bob Powers: "My biggest goal for the year is to get a program out on the street to replace the fare gates. I think that's arguably one of my top priorities right now. It will help in a lot of different facets, you know, just make it harder to get in the system without paying. I want everybody to pay their fair share. And by doing that, I think I can get at a lot of the quality of life issues that our riders are experiencing."
BART has seen a dramatic decrease in ridership outside of commuting hours. That's nearly 10 million less passengers on nights and weekends since 2015. Powers also says that BART may reduce weekend fares to bring riders back.
Bob Powers: "You want to take your family on the train on the weekends or at night, I have to make sure that you feel safe, you know, and that's the added presence in the system we're working on. Then the other thing is, so you and the family of four. I have to make it competitive. So, how about I, you know, give you 50% off on the weekend."
Phil Matier: "We may be going to see that?"
Bob Powers: "We are... we're looking at that right now."
Phil Matier: "Looking at half off for families on the weekend?"
Bob Powers: "Could be. Yeah, for sure. We're looking at incentives to draw back our ridership."
Phil Matier: "When might that start?"
Bob Powers: "We're going to have a discussion at our board workshop in the next couple of weeks. Just tee it up and see if there's an appetite there for it, I think. But from BART staff, we want to encourage, we want to regain the trust of the ridership."
Phil Matier: "Well, half off on weekends would certainly be a headline."
Bob Powers: "It's a starter."
Phil Matier: "If you made it half off, all safe, you might have a winner."
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BART has struggled with the Bay Area's rising homeless crisis, just as cities have. A couple years ago, images of rampant drug use at San Francisco's Civic Center station went viral.
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Phil Matier: You know, a lot of times people's impressions about BART start before they even get on the system. Now I gotta say looking around here, this looks a lot better than it did a year ago a year ago, when people openly using drugs right over there so what have you done?
Bob Powers: "So I, we, have really focused on the station's the first appearance here... right."
Phil Matier: "Why weren't they clean before? It seemed like such a no-brainer... go out and clean the station? It wasn't a priority?"
Bob Powers: "No I don't... I don't think so, Phil, I think we always wanted to, always have tried to keep the stations clean, we had to double down with... are the challenges some of the challenges from the Bay Area, you know, the homelessness and some of the mental illness. Some of that was starting to creep into our system, and we weren't paying attention to that. Bad, I'll give you that. We regroup now and I can walk you through Civic and it's darn clean."
Phil Matier: "Okay, so we got one guy here, playing a mandolin trying to make a couple of bucks, a couple of panhandlers, but I gotta say all in all, this hallway is a lot cleaner than it was a year ago. A year ago, there were people lined up here, whacked out of their skulls on drugs."
Bob Powers: "Right? And I don't mince words. I mean, this is spotless, look at this hallway. There's not a piece of garbage debris on the entire hallway compared to what it was before.
Phil Matier: And how did we do that? How many cops do we have now patrolling this area?"
Bob Powers: "Well, we have a station post here, but it really has been a partnership with the city of San Francisco and Bart PD. It's what you want is folks walking throughout the system, you know, clear walking the hall, making sure there's no trouble, go do something else, then walk back again. So you and I can't set up camp here. And it's just... it's that roving presence that keeps folks you know, safe and keeps the system nice and clean."
Phil Matier: "When you first saw the photos, what was going on here? What was your reaction?"
Bob Powers: "It was heartbreaking. For me, heartbreak and because of how important I think BART is to Bay Area, you know, and I tell my staff that I believe BART blood, you know that I have so much vested in BART, I want her to succeed. And when I saw that, it was disheartening. I mean, it was very troubling for me, as a leader, of one of the leaders at BART at the time."
Phil Matier: "Why did it take so long for BART to react?"
Bob Powers: "Well, again, I think that was, you know, maybe at the start of this epidemic that the Bay Area is facing right now, that we all gotta, you know, come together to try to solve the homelessness crisis. But that was right at the beginning. So that was, what 18 months ago, two years ago, know that this was at the peak."
Phil Matier: "But you know, there's a saying I hear it all the time. You borrowed this the Bay Area, it's reflective of the Bay Area, whatever problems or anything you have on the streets, you go to see him on board. But the fact is also that people expect when they go into bars, that that trouble is not going to be there. Yeah, it's going to be safe."
Bob Powers: "And I want to say I couldn't agree more. The trouble should stop at the gates. Crime is one of the top concerns for passengers on BART. Cellphone thefts, fare-evaders, illegal drug use, those are all things that can be found on BART."
Phil Matier:"Now, here's the entrance, and this is where a lot of your trouble starts or stops."
Bob Powers: "That's right now."
Phil Matier: "Up until a couple of months ago, you could either hop over these things or walk right through it."
Bob Powers: "Correct."
Phil Matier: "So what have you changed to make sure the people that are bugging people on the trains from getting in?"
Bob Powers: "That's right. And so we increase the pressure right here. So you cannot push this open and walk into it. We increase that railing. You see that's really went higher on those side railings, so it's harder for you and I had to jump over that thing. And the next step is new fare gates."
Phil Matier: "Yeah, so Muni has those new fare gates already. It's a lot tougher for people to get in and out of there without a ticket. That's been like that for years. What took so long?"
Bob Powers: "Well, again, I think we're a little bit late on the fare evasion side. But we do have a plan in place right now. And the last piece will be the new fare gates. And then we're pretty much... that'll be a hardened station with new fare gates, higher railing. Cameras and security measures there. We call it a hardened station."
Phil Matier: "But when people get on board BART, they expect it to be safe. That's what they're paying for. That's what these gates are for, to keep the madness of the Bay Area out."
Bob Powers: "I hear that every day when I'm out, when you talk to people every day and you're out."
Phil Matier: "What is it they tell you?"
Bob Powers: "Yeah, I'll tell you. I'll give you the top three. Presence in the system. They want you and I in a vest, I don't care if they're armed or not armed in the best with the radio, walk in the trains, nights and weekends. That's probably what I hear the most. Second thing I probably hear the most is fare evasion. And third one is on homelessness and crowding."
Phil Matier: "OK, so what are you going to do about presence?"
Bob Powers: "Presence in the system. Two things are going on already. We started to train a team, reporting a new police chief a 30 days ago, and he immediately took police officers out of their cars, established a 12-man police team and they're already running in the system so that you may see him as we jump on. And then our ambassador program is going to start up, and that'll be another 10 officers walking the trains."
Phil Matier: "Now that brings us to another topic, which is theft. A lot of times on these trains, people are getting their phone snatched when the train pulls into the station, and that's one of the reasons we're putting more cops on there."
Bob Powers: "It is, for sure. So I think that's two pieces. I would say to that. One. Certainly, it's an educational campaign that we need to make sure our riders are tracking. You come into the system and you expect to be safe and I want you to be safe in the system. But you know, as you're coming into a station, if you can put your cellphone down and look up, it's important to just be aware of your personal surroundings."
BART is planning on replacing many of its old escalators with new ones. It is a much needed improvement, considering the current ones often don't work, or are gummed up with garbage and human waste.
Phil Matier: "Let's hop on board one of the escalators that's actually working today. How?"
Bob Powers: "I would say that our escalators have vastly improved... the reliability of our escalator program. And we're meeting our goal on reliability. But it has... we've had some challenging times there. Again, I think there, we've turned the corner as well."
Phil Matier: "Why do they break down all the time?"
Bob Powers: "Well, a lot of them... the ones that are exposed to the elements, you know, they're in a very rough environment, you know, and they're old. And they're different components. And we have a program right now to replace a lot of the escalators in the downtown station."
Phil Matier: "What are we going to be seeing in the next couple of years in terms of fix ups on board, you've got $4 billion to work with, what are we going to see? "
Bob Powers: "So the major ones are escalators. These two are a perfect example there. They're working but the escalators going up to the street level are getting replaced. And we're putting canopies over them so they can be locked at the street level. That's a big initiative we have going."
Then there are issues with expanding BART service to other parts of the Bay Area. BART's promise to bring service to San Jose continues to be delayed. When will the Milpitas and Berryessa stations open?
Phil Matier: "What about the San Jose extension? Yeah, OK, it's been delayed. Yeah, there's been problems on that. Do we have the cars for it? Are you going to be up and running and when?"
Bob Powers: "We will have the cars for when it's ready to open. And so, right now, BART and VTA are finishing their phase two, testing two, and then they'll get out of the way and let BART get in there to finish their testing. And I guarantee to the riders and your followers, we're going to open that system just as fast as we can."
Phil Matier: "Any idea when?"
Bob Powers: "I don't have an idea... you come back to me in a month and I'll have a better idea of a when."
You better believe Phil will be asking, and you can read Phil Matier's column in the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesdays and Sundays.
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