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Will BART’s Crucial System Rehab Pitch Be a Homerun with Voters this November?

September 29, 2016

Better BART. Better Bay Area.

Coming this November to the Bay Area is one of the more interesting transportation ballot measures in the 2016 field.  2016 has been dominated by reports of maintenance woes for some of the largest transit systems in the country, with the Washington, DC Metro and San Francisco BART among the most notorious.  As systems built in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond face aging and outdated infrastructure, voters are likely to see an uptick in ballot measures focused on maintenance and service improvements.  Such is the case in San Francisco, where BART’s 44-year-old underfunded rail system is under immense pressure to keep up with increased service needs and necessary safety expectations.  How voters respond to this call should be of extreme interest to other transportation agencies facing similar challenges across the country. 

A solution emerged in June when the BART Board of Directors approved a $3.5 billion general obligation bond measure, referred to as Measure RR, for the November ballot.  The 40-year bond would enable BART to follow through on its plan to “improve safety, increase train reliability and reduce traffic.”  More specific details include replacing and repairing deteriorating tracks, electrical systems, tunnel structures and cables.  If the counties within BART’s domain approve the measure by a two-thirds majority (Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco), homeowners would pay between $35 and $55 more a year in property taxes

Along with enhanced service reliability, BART officials are hoping that new technology allowing them to double the volume through the transbay tunnel will persuade residents to vote in favor of the measure.  In addition, a significant provision calls for an independent annual audit of how the bond proceeds are spent.  This provision could be essential in convincing residents skeptical of BART’s financial habits to ultimately vote for the measure.  Proponents of the measure are highlighting the fact that transparent reports and frequent public meetings will be a part of the audit process.  Zakhary Mallett, a BART Board member, believes in the merit of a bond measure (rather than a sales or property tax) because of how the funds will be borrowed and spent within a specific time and how they are strictly dedicated to infrastructure improvements.  Critics of the measure believe that BART’s past mismanagements, including their deals with labor unions, disqualify them from more taxpayer money.  A formal opposition campaign has yet to form. 

BART says that over the last year it has held over 230 community meetings with groups and stakeholders to discuss the future of BART’s needs and to hear response from the public.  The measure needs to surpass the 66.67 percent threshold of support mandated by California state law in order to pass.  Last summer, a poll conducted by BART indicated that 76 percent of respondents would vote for a $2.5 billion bond measure.  More recent polling suggests a tighter race, with a January BART poll finding 69 percent support for the bond measure, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce finding a 61 percent approval rating.  The transit agency plans to spend around $2 million for the election and has already launched an informational website explaining the plan and how to get involved. 

A campaign supporting the measure has officially launched and is actively advocating for passage of Measure RR.  The Yes on RR campaign is rallying behind the slogan, “Keep BART safe and reliable.”  In the weeks leading up to the election, they will be leading phonebanking, door knocking, and other outreach and organizing efforts to get residents engaged and excited about voting for this transformative measure.

The measure has received a number of high-profile endorsements statements of support.  TransForm, a California community advocacy group, believes the measure will continue to lead the Bay Area towards a sustainable future and is backing the measure as a result.  US Senator Diane Feinstein has also endorsed the measure, saying, “BART keeps us connected and keeps our economy running.”  San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s office has argued for the continuing to invest in BART as the BART system and the San Francisco economy are closely intertwined.   The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is also supportive of the measure, especially the station access improvements that are included on the list of projects to be completed if the bond passes.  In addition, the Bay Area Council, which was instrumental in leading the effort to create the BART system almost 70 years ago, is also advocating for Measure RR. 

Last March, an electrical problem prevented 50 cars from being able to operate and a significant portion of track to be out of commission, leading to ripple-effect delays throughout the system.  The cars were damaged by mysterious power surges, which BART officials still do not have an explanation for.  The hope of many is that by passing the bond measure in November, these types of events will become a memory of the past and San Francisco’s public transit network will be launched into the future.