What will it take to get Bay Area commuters back on BART? ABC7's Phil Matier gets answers from GM

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- One of the biggest issues facing the Bay Area as we emerge from the pandemic will be getting back to work on public transit.

For the hundreds of thousands of office workers who once filled the office towers, it's no longer a choice between driving or taking BART to work, but whether or not to even bother with the commute.

Before COVID-19, BART was carrying more than 400,000 passengers a day

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At its worst, ridership dropped a whopping 96%.

Who wants to pack into a train car with strangers in a health crisis? No one. That's the hill BART has to climb to get riders back -- make them feel safe, and BART's general manager says that may mean giving riders reduced fares and other incentives to get back on board.

"I think BART is ready," said BART General Manager Bob Powers. "Right now, the steps that we've taken and that we are taking to encourage ridership to come back."

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"Encourage ridership to come back, improving our safety and cleanliness of the system," Powers said.

"Over 30 more cleaners," Powers said.

Plus, "We have our progressive policing bureau. So you're going to see a presence in the system. Ambassadors, community service."

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Despite facing an unprecedented budget deficit, BART has managed to keep every station open during the pandemic and did not lay off any employees. Money from the federal government is keeping trains up and running.

For years, the argument was it was cheaper, easier and less stressful for people to take BART than to drive in to work.

Commuters basically had two options -- either drive or take BART or maybe take a bus. But now there's a third option with telecommuting people have the option of staying at home now.

"And when people need to come into work, you know that we're there for them," said Powers "The other opportunity we have is that if you're not coming into work, what about off peak and weekends, people wanting to get back out into you know, regular routine of life, there's an opportunity for us to get."

Of course to do that, people need to feel safe. Because COVID-19 is spread through the air, being surrounded with people you don't know on a crowded train takes on new meaning.

It starts with masks.

Some people say, "I'm not going to get on board BART unless everybody's masked" -- but how long masks will be required remains to be seen.

"We're going to take our direction from the health professionals," Powers said.

Powers said BART is changing its re-ventilation system on its cars and that every single car will have a new filtration system for air handling by the end of June.

"It's all about breathing and transmission of particulates. Right. And so we have these new MERS 14 filters go in this air and this car will be circulated and changed out every 70 seconds," Powers said.

But the cars also have to look like they are a healthy ride.

"It's got to look clean, and the air is gonna be cleaned. Those are the two biggest things," Powers said.

Powers says ridership is slowly picking up. To meet the reduced demand, BART reduced its operating hours and is currently running trains every 30 minutes.

But he hopes to increase service by this fall to every 15 minutes and provide riders with longer trains to space them out, and incentives to get riders back on trains.

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Prior to the pandemic, there was talk about fare increases for BART, but that is on hold as well.

"We're not proposing a fare increase at any time soon," Powers said. "Matter of fact, I'm going the opposite, Phil. In September, I want you to be on the lookout for some incentives, like discounts."

Discounts?

"Maybe free Fridays, maybe 50% off -- something like that. Something to bring riders back," Powers said.

And while Powers is promising that BART will return, it will not be a return to business as usual.

"We need to be more and more customer focused, we need to listen to our riders... we've got to do a better job of listening to our customers," Powers said.

The pandemic changed lives and changed the way we work. It looks like BART will change, too.

See more stories and videos about Building a Better Bay Area here.

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