BART's general manager weighs in on state of the system as transit agency celebrates 50 years

ByKen Miguel and Phil Matier KGO logo
Friday, September 9, 2022
BART GM talks priorities, funding with ABC7 insider Phil Matier
From a special tax to housing development to the possibility of a new SF Bay crossing. BART's general manager opened up about the state of the system as the transit agency celebrates 50 years.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- One of the amazing things about BART is that it has worked just as the designers imagined it would 50 years ago. Creating a critical link for commuters from the suburbs to the city center and getting people out of their cars.

BART 50 year anniversary: A look at the past, present and future of Bay Area Rapid Transit

But the Bay Area has changed a lot in 50 years and BART's current leaders have had to adapt on the fly to keep the system on the rails.

ABC7 News insider Phil Matier spoke with BART General Manager Robert M. Powers about the state of the system at 50 years.

VIDEO: The birth of BART 50 years ago: How it came to be

The idea for BART was born in 1951. But it took another 20 years of hard work to make that dream come true. Here's a look back at the beginning of Bay Area Rapid Transit.

Connecting more counties to cities

When asked if there are any new stations on the drawing board, Powers referenced Link21 - BART's effort to look into the future of public transit in the Bay Area.

"It's not only looking at another crossing, but where else do we need public transit?" he said. "And where can we break through some bottlenecks?

When it comes to Link21, BART's website reads, "Link21 is planning a new transbay passenger rail connection between Oakland and San Francisco. Travelers will be able to ride comfortably between the Sacramento Area and downtown San Francisco, the Northern San Joaquin Valley, the Peninsula, and the South Bay. Regional Rail riders with destinations across the Bay may be able to take a direct rail connection without transferring to a different service."

For those wondering if we could see another San Francisco Bay crossing, Powers told us, "We're looking where we need another crossing. Another Bay crossing. That's being looked at right now for sure."

He went on to say, "People ask me a lot of times about where might be a good place for infill stations. It could be just south of Lake Merritt and in Oakland, in the San Antonio neighborhood area. It could be a couple other locations. So that's all being looked at right now as part of Link21."

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Priorities are reliability, cleanliness, safety

When it comes to transportation, Bay Area residents have more options than ever before. Matier notes that a lot of BART's infrastructure is not modern but also not falling apart. So is the transit agency keeping up?

"Yes, we are keeping up," Powers answered. "It's functional, it is quite functional. And there's, I'll tell you, there's three decisions that I make on a daily basis. It's improving service, no more missed trains, it's the cleanliness of the system. And it's getting a presence in the system, ambassadors, crisis intervention, sworn officers, on the trains in the stations.

When it comes to wear and tear on the system over the years, Powers says maintenance is a priority.

"Brand new elevators in this station, new restrooms, new elevators," he said. "It's all about improving the customer experience. You come in and you need to use the restroom? A clean restroom right here. New elevators, escalators are being maintained. This is what BART's all about - functionality.

Powers was proud to share that BART was the first transit system in the U.S to be fully ADA accessible.

And when it comes to safety, Powers notes a big part of it comes down to a presence in the system.

"I'm fully staffed on ambassadors who ride the trains on the platforms," he said. "I'm almost staffed up on crisis intervention specialists, and we continue to hired sworn officers. I'm hearing from the riders that they're seeing an increased presence in the system. Whether there's, you know, troubled souls or not, seeing an ambassador walked by you and I on a train is a good thing."

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Connecting to every part of the Bay Area was one BART's original goals 50 years ago. The future expansion now is centered in the South Bay.

May need ballot measure to fund system

With ridership still not at pre-pandemic levels, that's taken a toll on the transit agency's bottom line. The question now - can BART survive without going turning to taxpayers?

"Need to have some serious discussions with the elected officials in the Bay Area on that in the next probably 18 months," Powers said. "Our fiscal cliff and our federal support ends, roughly depending on ridership and some other things, July of 2025. And so if we need a measure, we got to start having that discussion regionally. Right now."

When asked if he sees something going to the ballot, Powers said yes, "I think some kind of a regional measure and some out year is going to be needed."

He went on to say, "I think the how of it and how broad that tax is, how many counties, that's for the elected officials, and with input from me and other general managers. But yeah, I think some kind of a regional measure and some out year is going to be needed."

New BART cars are game changers

If you're unaware, there's no other system like BART. Matier says it's so unique that trying to order new cars is doubly difficult because the track sizes on BART are different than any other mass transit system.

Powers admits it's been challenging."

"It's been hard to get spare parts," he said. "The cars that we're retiring right now we're bringing them out of service, using those spare parts to keep the fleet running. Right now, half of the fleet in the system that you see out there is new cars and as new cars come on board, we're retiring them. It's a game changer.

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BART pressing forward with housing developments

According to Powers, BART is in the housing business.

"We're an economic engine in the Bay Area and we're helping with some of the social challenges that aren't happening right now," he said.

They've gone from a commuter line transit agency into the housing and development business, with apartment buildings built on BART land on what used to be a BART parking lot. These housing units are not without controversy and they're seemingly going up at all stations.

"They are and we're going to continue," Power said. "It's a major push in the Bay Area and U.S., development at transit stations, and we're leading that. There is no agency in the U.S. more progressive on development around the stations."

"Right here is market rate housing right now," said Powers while gesturing. "And the next piece is affordable housing.

When asked if people in the future want to live in something like this, Powers answered, "When we're building these things, people are wanting to lease them. They want to live there. So there's no, from a supply demand, there's no shortage of demand of folks wanting to live at developments around the BART station."

System flexibility is important

The beauty of BART, Powers says, is that you can get anywhere in the system. Not just to a job.

So when faced with a question of the definition of destinations, BART's general manager said, "You know this age long discussion about what kind of a system is BART - is it urban is it suburban? My answer to that is we're a hybrid and that's the best place to be. We can pivot we can be very flexible and we can serve the Bay Area."

Take a look at all our coverage of BART's 50th anniversary, as well as the latest stories and videos on the transit system.

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