BART May Soon Take Orders from Blogosphere

 

The transit activists, it seems, are storming the gates in the Bay Area.  Their target for the 2012 election season is the open District 3 seat on the Bay Area Rapid Transit, and a victory could signal the maturation of an insurgent trend years in the making.  In an era dominated by Tea Party challenges to the political establishment, it is instead transit activists who are battling against BART’s status quo.  Activists have become increasingly frustrated over the last decade with BART’s focus on system expansion and job creation through dubiously justified construction projects than with improving core services and keeping up with runaway structural deficits.

The genesis of the conflict can be traced back to the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project.  Studied since the 1970s, BART dreamed of connecting the nearby Oakland Coliseum station with the Oakland Airport.  The $130 million project was sold to Alameda County voters in 2000 as part of the Measure B half-cent sales tax.  But the OAC went through as series of gross mutations, shedding system features while ballooning in cost. 

By 2010, the cost estimate for the OAC had more than quadrupled to $550 million.  The system would no longer connect to BART, requiring riders to switch to an adjacent station and ride on a pulley-operated tramway.  The overhead tramway would run slower than the existing AirBART bus shuttle system while the fare would cost twice as much.  The ridership projections over the existing system were viewed dubiously, as were the claimed job-creation figures. Promised stops along the economically depressed Hegenberger Corridor, a major element in selling the project to the public, were removed from the plans due to cost overruns.  The much cheaper, and faster, dedicated-lane Bus Rapid Transit option was tabled for primarily political reasons.

 With core services being cut back on the BART system, a fleet of train cars nearly 40 years old, and fabric seating that was found to contain dangerous viruses, bacteria, and fecal mater, transit activist groups like TransForm and Urban Habitat swung into action against what they saw as a wasteful, duplicative project.  The most visible opposition to the Oakland Airport Connector came from a cadre of young blogger-activists, often writing under pseudonyms: the now-shuttered ABetterOakland, run by Vsmoothe (Echa Schneider); Future Oakland & The DTO, both run by DTO510 (Jonathan Bair); Living in the O, run by Oakland Becks (Rebecca Saltzman); TransBay Blog, run by Eric C.Systemic Failure, run by Drunk Engineer; and many others.

Vocal opposition to the OAC turned into a Title VI civil rights complaint with the Federal Transit Administration, leading to the withdrawal of $70 million in stimulus funds.  Opposition further coalesced around the candidacy of urban planner and former Executive Director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, Robert Raburn.  While incumbent Carole Allen Ward, a staunch OAC proponent, trumpeted her role in using BART for job creation, Raburn focused on transit service, access, and equity.  Raburn unseated Ward in an upset in 2010 – campaigning primarily on a platform built around his opposition to the Oakland Airport Connector. 

But even with the election of an anti-OAC board member, the Oakland Airport Connector project simply refused to die.  While he convened an inquiry on the OAC, Raburn found that BART staff had plowed so much money into the project so as to make it nearly impossible to shutter without a massive financial loss.  Raburn grudgingly acquiesced, pivoting focus to service issues.  He helped steer budget surpluses towards replacing bacteria-infested seating rather than temporary fare reductions, getting BART to prioritize replacing their 40-year-old fleet of passenger cars, and had a hand in the ouster of OAC-supporting BART manager Dorothy Dugger.

With a new election cycle upon us, another transit activist tested in the gantlet of the Oakland Airport Connector is running for the BART Board.  This time it is Rebecca Saltzman, author of Living in the O, who is a main contender for the District 3 seat.  This election should see less acrimony than the last, as District 3 incumbent Bob Franklin is stepping down to run for a seat on the Oakland City Council (a seat being vacated by Councilwoman Jane Bruner in her run at Oakland City Attorney).

Saltzman is from the new school of transit advocates, more concerned with service enhancements, improving headways and hours of operation, system upgrades, and transit equity than she is with system expansion.  BART staff and longer-tenured board members, however, are still looking outwards rather than in.  BART had a recent groundbreaking for their system expansion to San Jose (the projections for which have been roundly criticized in the past), and is in the process of pushing through an expansion plan to the suburban/exurban community of Livermore  (criticized for its freeway-median alignment and low ridership projections).

What this all means for the future of BART has yet to be determined, but we may look back on this coming election as a tipping point in how Bay Area leaders think about transit, and the future role that transit advocates will play in making those decisions.

Christopher Kidd was the founder and former writer of the LADOT Bike Blog.  He currently works as a planner at Alta Planning + Design in Berkeley.