June 12, 2018 - From the June, 2018 issue

BART Faces Bay Area 'Growing Pains & Aging Pains'

California cities have taken up the critical issue of improving transportation infrastructure, and the San Francisco Bay Area is no exception. Steve Heminger (pictured), executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and Nick Josefowitz, vice president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors, speak with TPR about managing a regional transportation system that is simultaneously aging and investing in expansion & maintenance.  Both also share their priorities for BART's future, including a recently approved expansion, potential connections with the Central Valley, and the ongoing work of integrating resilience and innovation into 21st century transit infrastructure.

Steve Heminger

Steve, Los Angeles voters approved $120 billion in funding for the expansion of the LA Metro system. How does San Francisco’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission go about acquiring local resources? 

Steve Heminger: What LA has done, we have been doing in the Bay Area for a long time (though certainly not to that dollar level). The self-help movement in California began in Santa Clara County, and since 1984, has raised $70 billion just in the Bay Area.

In addition to county-based sales taxes, we have also circled in bridge toll measures: Two have already been approved by voters, and a third is on the ballot this June.

Nick, as a member of the BART Board of Directors, what is your role in getting the resources needed for transit priorities?

Nick Josefowitz: To raise revenue from bridge tolls or other local measures, you need to go to the ballot. That means you don’t just need to have the right policies or fund the right projects; you also need to do the political legwork to make it happen. I’m lucky that I have a bunch of colleagues in regional transportation who put in the legwork together to get these measures passed at the ballot.

Steve, what are the current priorities for transit investment in the Bay Area?

Steve Heminger: BART’s problem is two-fold: We’ve got aging pains and growing pains at the same time.

We’re used to thinking of BART as a new-fangled system, but it is not a spring chicken anymore. Over the next several years, we’re replacing the entire rail fleet and upgrading a lot of infrastructure just to keep the system together.

To give you one telling example, not only is BART still running its original railcars, but it’s also using a train control system that’s 50 years old and still uses vacuum tubes. We’re upgrading to a state-of-the-art automated train control system.

We also need to expand BART service—not necessarily by physically extending the system, but by increasing frequency and headways so that we can squeeze more folks through the system we’ve already built.

Do Bay Area transit riders already have the ability to use one card across all the local transportation systems?

Steve Heminger: Yes. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but we have the Clipper program. BART still offers a magnetic stripe card as an option, and all our operators allow you to pay cash one way or another. But Clipper has achieved a very high market share: It’s collecting about 80 percent of BART’s farebox revenue. Now, we’re replacing it with what we’re calling Clipper 2.0.

There are a number of features that we’re looking to procure in this round of Clipper upgrades. We got into the smart card game fairly early, so we missed out on some of the innovations that have been delivered elsewhere. We’re very interested in getting an app for phone-based use of the system, for example, and in integrating credit cards, which a number of places have done.

 Nick, your BART district includes some of the busiest stations in San Francisco, between Embarcadero and Civic Center. What are the challenges for those four stations when it comes to expansion, as well as homelessness?

Nick Josefowitz: We have infrastructure capacity issues. On any given day, well over half of the entrances and exits on the BART system are done at those four stations. As we expand the number of cars in our fleet, and as our new train control system allows trains to run faster and closer together, we’re going to bump up against the capacity of the stations to handle that many people at one time. We’re trying to upgrade the capacity of our existing stations as cost effectively as possible, such as by adding vertical circulation with new elevators, and by experimenting with platform side doors so that our platforms can carry more people.

Another challenge is the fact that San Francisco has the highest concentration of unsheltered or homeless people in the entire country on a per-square-mile basis. That’s a problem in all of our public spaces—in our streets, in our parks, in our stations, and in our trains.

We’re starting to address this by gathering more data about the problem in BART stations specifically. We now do a nightly count of the number of folks sleeping in our stairwells, as well as monthly counts, at different times of day, of the number of people sleeping in our stations and in our trains. Already, over the past few months, this has given us a more granular level of understanding about the problem, and a basis for responding.

We’re responding in two main ways. The first way is through more conscientious environmental design of our stations. We’re closing off some of the hallways and station entrances that are not well used by our riders, but which provide a place for folks to sleep or to shoot up.

At the same time, we’ve started collaborating more deeply with the San Francisco Police Department, as well as social service agencies around our region, to try and make sure that folks in our stations are given access to shelters, mental healthcare, addiction treatment services, and the whole suite of services offered to get people out of homelessness and give them a stable platform to rebuild their lives.

It’s really tough; we’re a transit agency, not a social service agency. It’s going to be difficult to have meaningful change in the situation belowground in our stations if we don’t see a meaningful change in the situation aboveground on our streets.

Steve, there’s a lot on BART’s plate right now—a “Silicon Valley extension” to San Jose, a just-approved extension to Contra Costa County, and a potential connection to the Central Valley. Elaborate on those projects and their challenges. 

Steve Heminger: It is a lot. But when you’ve got aging pains and growing pains, you’ve got to be willing to address both. You can’t just decide, “We’ve got the system we have and we’re going to expand it no further,” and you can’t pursue expansions at the cost of basic system repair. That’s the tension.


The notion of getting BART, our largest rail provider, to San Jose, our largest city, has always made plenty of sense to me. It’s going to cost us a lot of money because a lot of it is tunneling. But I think it’s something that the region should have done when we built the original BART system.

The bigger challenge is heading eastward, such as with the new extension to Antioch. When BART chases growth that way, we have a hard time providing the level of dense development around the stations to make the investment pay off.

Steve, at VerdeXchange 2018, San Francisco CAO Naomi Kelly spoke on the challenges that sea-level rise poses for the city’s infrastructure. Talk about how BART addresses sea-level rise in its upgrades and expansions.

Steve Heminger: We just finished a project called Resilient by Design, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to figure out how we can best adapt to sea-level rise and protect our shoreline beyond just building seawalls as far as the eye can see. It essentially mimics the work New York did after Superstorm Sandy—except in our case, we’re doing it before the disaster happens.

The Bay Area has battled for decades to prevent too much fill of the bay and too much development nearby. We’ve largely succeeded in protecting the Bay from ourselves, but now our challenge is the reverse: We have to protect ourselves from the Bay.

Nick, LA Metro CEO Phil Washington has created an Office of Extraordinary Innovation to solicit new ideas and fund them through public-private partnerships. Is there an equivalent effort in San Francisco?

Nick Josefowitz: One of the great challenges that government faces is bringing in best practices and modern technology from the private sector to make our work as effective as possible. In San Francisco, we experience this challenge acutely because of how tech-forward our private sector is. What it means is that, often, we’re not in a place where we need to be making “extraordinary innovations”—we just need to catch up with the private sector, and that would create massive improvement.

BART just hired a new Chief Performance Officer, and we have a terrific Chief Information Officer, both of whom are driving that agenda. For instance, as we build the new extension to San Jose, we’ve deployed drones to help monitor the worksites. We’re one of the first public agencies to do that. We’ve also teamed up with UC Berkeley to work through how we can use drones to monitor our trackway.

Are you also pursuing non-traditional financing opportunities to leverage your public financing?

Nick Josefowitz: We’ve dipped our toe into public-private partnerships, such as with the rebuild of the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, Doyle Drive. It’s something that, going forward, we’re going to need to work on more aggressively, especially since transportation dollars aren’t flowing as freely from D.C. But we need to make sure that we do it on projects where deep collaboration with private partners makes sense, and that we structure the contracts right so that the public sector isn’t left holding the bag if a project doesn’t work out.

A good example at BART is the Oakland Airport Connector, where we teamed up with Doppelmayr Cable Car to operate the extension from our Coliseum Station to the airport. It was a design-build-operate contract, where they handle operations for 20 years, and payments are associated with very rigorous performance metrics. So far, that system has operated pretty successfully.

LA Metro is doing a NextGen Bus Study project over the next four years to rethink and recalibrate its bus network because of the challenges of declining ridership. Are there similar challenges in the Bay Area, or similar efforts underway at your agency?

Steve Heminger: There are, and we’re hiring the same UCLA researchers who studied LA ridership trends to take a look up here, although I don’t think our bus systems are struggling as badly as those in Los Angeles.

A bigger challenge for us is the level of unhappiness or frustration that much of our corporate community has with the bus transit that exists today. Google and Apple have been the leaders in setting up their own bus transit systems, but if you put all the tech buses together into one outfit, you’d have the seventh largest transit operator in the Bay Area.

I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, though there are some who think it is. But it certainly is a challenge to the monopoly business model that supports our bus systems, which basically haven’t changed since World War II. Our region and our state have been innovating more in rail than in bus, and we’ve got to catch it up. At the end of the day, not everybody is going to ride the train—not everybody can afford to—and trains cost a lot more to operate than buses do.

Nick Josefowitz: I think some of the most exciting innovation around buses is being done in suburban areas of the Bay Area with autonomous vehicle shuttle pilot programs —for example, in Bishop Ranch, which is the largest business park in Northern California, as well as in communities in the Tri-Valley. To me, one of the most exciting areas where we can think about a bus network of the future is incorporating autonomous technology. 

Nick, you’ve been advancing linking funding for transportation to the production of more housing. Elaborate on that effort.

Nick Josefowitz: We’ve spent billions of dollars on our regional transportation networks. We have to do a better job of building more housing around transportation nodes, especially rail stations. The demand by people who want to live there—working families who have been priced out of the rest of the region—is immense, and we need to do everything we can to allow more construction there.

Steve, as Governor Brown’s term expires, what’s your take on the opportunity of high-speed rail and its integration with your existing services?

Steve Heminger: There’s a real question whether, when Jerry Brown leaves the scene, the project can continue the momentum that he started. He has been a tireless advocate for the project, and there is quite a bit of mileage under construction in the Central Valley. But they are still struggling to figure out the financial means to connect it with either the Bay Area or Los Angeles. The engineering challenges are not small, either.

We certainly welcome high-speed rail when it makes its way here. In the meantime, we’re taking advantage of the opportunity to upgrade Caltrain—which has been running since Abraham Lincoln was president—by electrifying the Peninsula Corridor ahead of time. Just as LA has been working on grade separations and other improvements to pave the way for high-speed rail, we’re doing the same thing.


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