BART seeks billions in bonds for overhaul

After years of focusing on system expansion, the BART Board of Directors voted unanimously Thursday to place a $3.5 billion bond on the November ballot to rebuild the agency’s aging infrastructure.

The bond measure drew support from local government leaders, area business groups, bicycle advocacy organizations, nonprofits and community organizations. More than an hour of almost entirely positive public comment preceded the vote.

A telephone poll of 2,100 voters conducted last year showed broad support for an infrastructure bond, with 68 percent saying that BART needed further funding.

The board had initially considered a bond for as much as $4.5 billion, but settled on $3.5 billion, which the poll showed had consistent support above the two-thirds necessary to pass in November.

BART board member Zakhary Mallett raised some concerns that BART has not been as careful with its money as it could be, particularly when it comes to employee benefits, but said that the massive cost of the necessary repairs dwarfs his estimates of wasted funding in BART’s operating budget.

Board president Tom Radulovich said the infrastructure cost amounts to $9 billion, and through traditional revenue sources, including raising fares and seeking more funding from the state and federal government, BART could only raise about half of that expense.

The bond includes $625 million to replace worn out tracks, $570 million to repair tunnels and structures, $135 million to replace mechanical infrastructure, $400 million to replace the outdated train control system to get trains running faster, and $210 million in station improvements.

Another $445 million will be devoted to relieving crowding at stations.

Radulovich said:

“In a way it will be a 100 percent new system.”

While some concrete infrastructure will remain the same, the trackway, electrical infrastructure and most elements of the system will be replaced, while a project to replace the train cars is already underway.

Board member John McPartland said ahead of Thursday’s vote:

“This is long overdue. We should have started this a long time ago. … But there is no such thing as starting too late until people are getting injured.”

BART’s priority has shifted in recent years from system expansion, such as the expansion past Fremont to San Jose already under construction, back to core infrastructure improvements. In the last six years, reinvestment from the capital budget has ballooned from 21 percent to roughly two-thirds of the budget.

For Stuart Cohen, executive director of transportation advocacy group TransForm, BART’s continued deferral of core maintenance was a mistake but he praised the board’s approach in introducing the bond measure:

“We all know that when BART stops, the Bay Area stops as well and we’ve seen that a bit too much over the last few years.”

A day rarely goes by without some track or equipment issue delaying or halting BART service. The agency couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of the need to rebuild the service than a mysterious electrical glitch that shut down regular service between the North Concord/Martinez and Pittsburg/Bay Point stations for weeks earlier this year.

While the glitch ultimately went away on its own, a similar problem had already caused problems in the Transbay Tube and was also never explained.

Radulovich said this is the third time that BART has asked voters to approve a bond. The first time was for the initial construction of the system 40 years ago, and the second was for critical earthquake retrofits about a decade ago.

The seismic safety bond, born of a better understanding of how to engineer for earthquakes, has been a huge success, according to Radulovich:

“When you give BART the money to do a major overhaul, we can do good work.”