BART's GM says transit system has to be complementary to hybrid work schedules

BART's GM says transit system has to be complementary to hybrid work schedules

'If the equilibrium is three days in the office, and two days remote, those three days in the office I want folks taking public transit,' says Bob Powers.
September 5, 2022

By Ricardo Cano | San Francisco Chronicle

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month at a time when it's also faced with serious challenges over how it will recover from the pandemic and questions about how it will evolve in the future.

The region's largest rail system has recovered about 38% of its pre-COVID ridership as of August, lagging behind other large U.S. metropolitan rail systems. BART funded roughly two-thirds of its operations through fare revenues before the pandemic, but recovered just a fraction of its pre-pandemic farebox last fiscal year.

BART has received more than $1 billion in federal aid that's helped sustain service during the pandemic, but the agency expects that funding to run out by summer 2025.

BART General Manager Bob Powers sat down with The Chronicle on the eve of BART's half-century milestone to discuss the system's pandemic recovery and how BART could reinvent itself.

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Q: Where do you see BART's recovery right now?

A: The focus for BART right now and the vast majority of the decisions I've made have a common denominator of improving the customer experience and, as riders are coming back into the system, that we're there for the riders, we're clean, we're on time. Because right now we need to earn our riders back, we absolutely do... We want to make sure that when folks come back to the system they have a very positive experience, and so positive that they're going to be a loyal transit customer ongoing.

Q: It's still not clear how the future of telework in the Bay Area is going to affect transit ridership. Do you have a sense of when that picture is going to become clearer? And if not, what's it like to be operating in this space where you just don't know what things are going to look like even a year from now?

A: The data says the number of (COVID) cases in the Bay Area, in the state and in the nation are coming down. And so, I think we can see in a couple of months some sense of an equilibrium on where remote work is going to land. What I am trying to do is position BART to be complementary to that. I am not naive enough to think that we're going to be able to compete against that. I'm not in that business. But the business I'm in is that if the equilibrium is three days in the office, and two days remote, those three days in the office I want folks taking public transit, and I want that experience to be world class. We've got to be complimentary to that remote work effort.

Q: BART is in this serious financial position, and a lot of BART's operations are funded by fare revenue. What remedies do you see to stabilize the agency's funding?

A: There's two pieces to that. First we need to, and we are, working with the region on what the future looks like for operational funding for public transit. Those discussions are ongoing, and there needs to be a collective effort. There needs to be a regional measure at some point for transit operations. When that is, how it looks, how much does it encompass — that's what we need to work through with the (Metropolitan Transportation Commission), our elected officials and the other operators.

That being said, we have to make smart decisions right now about our expenses. We're looking very hard at that side of the equation as well. On the hiring side we really have focused our hirings on three areas, and they all are centered on ridership experience. Anything that helps with fewer canceled trains, cleaner trains or improves BART's presence in the system, we're gonna hire for that.

Q: There's always been a desire in the Bay Area to see BART grow and serve areas where trains don't currently run. But the region doesn't have a good track record of delivering these big transit expansion projects on time and on budget. How can BART learn from the past and deliver on future projects faster?

A: First, the region needs to be all on the same page as far as these mega projects go. We need to have a regional buy in on these mega projects. ... There needs to be a little bit more rigidity to cost estimating these projects from a capital side and making sure that we've got the correct cost estimate. But then, also, making sure that everybody understands the long-term operation and maintenance cost and then couple those together for a lifecycle cost. And just make sure that we're going into these mega projects a regional perspective, and not an agency perspective, and that the lifecycle cost makes sense for the Bay Area.

Q: When I spoke with Jeff Tumlin earlier this year, he'd mentioned that, beyond telework, there have been other hurdles in getting people to return to public transit. For BART, what are those other factors affecting how and whether riders return?

A: I think one element is that public transit has to be competitive from a time perspective. That gets back to our inner connectivity. Say you're coming in from AC Transit, you live in Oakland, you get on BART, and you're going to the city. There's a limit on how long you're going to allow that trip to take, or you're going to do something else. You're going to think twice if it takes you 90 minutes to get in from somewhere outside Rockridge Station into the city because of transfers or delays ... .

And I think the other part is we have to make sure that there's a presence in the system ... that the (stations) are clean, the bathrooms are open and staffed.

Ricardo Cano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ByRicardoCano


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