Out leaders drive BART's future
by Matthew S. Bajko
For the first time since being elected to the BART board in 1996, gay director Tom Radulovich is serving as its president.
The progressive transportation leader holds the 9th District seat and represents most of San Francisco on the regional mass transit system's oversight body. Joining him is lesbian director Rebecca Saltzman , who won election last November to the District 3 seat representing parts of Oakland, Berkeley, and a section of Contra Costa County.
The two out BART directors are helping shape the system's future as it strains to deal with increasing ridership, renewed calls for expansion into far flung East Bay cities, construction of an extension into downtown San Jose, and contract negotiations with its unionized workers.
Meeting recently with the Bay Area Reporter, Saltzman and Radulovich both stated that one of their main objectives for BART in the coming year is to focus on the capacity issues and condition of the system's stations in downtown San Francisco and Oakland.
"For many years BART has been expanding into the suburbs but little time has been spent on maintaining the core system," said Radulovich, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Livable City, which focuses on improving transit options in San Francisco.
Saltzman added that the entire BART board as well as the agency's top management agrees on the need to address the system's core components. The capacity challenges are set to multiply as more housing and offices are built along central Market Street in the city and downtown Oakland.
Also on the horizon: BART cars will begin rolling into new Silicon Valley stations being built by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. The Milpitas and Berryessa stations are expected to open in 2018.
To handle the new ridership, the VTA is buying 60 new BART cars.
"We do expect it to be a strain on capacity until the new cars come," said Saltzman, the government affairs manager at the California League of Conservation Voters.
Radulovich added that "the folks who live and work along that corridor will see a big transformation" due to the new South Bay line. Yet he noted that, "Most ridership growth will be on the urban core."
Bouncing back from a drop in riders due to the economic downturn, BART now carries close to 400,000 people each weekday and projects that number will rise to 600,000 in coming decades.
"We have a lot of riders now. We are all thinking how will we be able to handle all of them," said Radulovich.
One idea is to upgrade BART's control system to increase the number of trains sent through the Transbay Tube during peak travel times. It now handles 24 trains each way; the hope is to increase it to 30 trains.
Another issue is BART's fleet of 669 cars, which Radulovich said is "the oldest in the U.S. transit world." They are being rehabbed so they can continue to be used over the next decade.
But the agency plans to replace its entire fleet over a six-year period, with the first batch of new cars arriving in 2017. The new ones will have a third door on each car to speed up passenger boarding and the seats will be one-inch narrower.
The seat makeup remains undecided. BART has been testing out vinyl seats on select trains to replace the old cloth-covered ones. An investigation by the Bay Citizen news website about the unsanitary condition of the old seats led BART to begin addressing the situation.
BART is seeking public input for the new fleet's interior design. It plans to host a series of public meetings, bring mock-ups of the trains to community events, and post video showing of the design to its website.
"Our surveys on cleanliness have gone up. People go to the cars with the vinyl seats," noted Saltzman.
Not in the immediate planning for the core system is construction of a new station at Oakland's Jack London Square or at 30th Street and Mission in San Francisco. Building a second underwater tube across the bay with train stations along a major street in San Francisco's South of Market district is also unlikely.
"If we were to do a second tube, it would require billions of dollars we don't have," said Radulovich.
There are cheaper options BART can explore, said Saltzman, such as improving bus and bicycle access to existing stations and designating increased parking fees for station upgrades. Radulovich cited such ideas as a streetcar system in Oakland and better connecting transit options for places like Alameda, Emeryville, and San Francisco State University.
"We can get people to BART easier," he said.
A proponent of high-speed rail in California, Radulovich would like to see BART re-examine its Millbrae Station, built as part of the extension to San Francisco International Airport but lacking in the predicted ridership. One idea is to run the airport's people-mover system out to the station.
"With high-speed rail coming up the Peninsula, we need to look at that again," he said. "We need a much better connection to the airport for people coming up from San Jose."
Asked if they support renaming SFO in honor of slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, Saltzman and Radulovich both backed the idea. Should that proposal be shelved, they also voiced support when asked about adding Milk's name to the SFO BART station.
"We could change the station name," said Radulovich, noting that several BART stations have had their names updated over the years. "They usually get longer," he quipped.
As for the negotiations over the five union contracts, which all expire June 30, Radulovich said the talks are mainly between management and union leaders but that "the full board is involved in it right now."
He said BART leaders "are not there yet" on what, if any, pay raises will be offered.
In a release sent out in early April SEIU Local 1021, which represents 1,400 BART maintenance and cleaning staff, noted its members had not had a salary increase for four years and had foregone a $100 million scheduled pay raise in 2009 due to the economic downturn.
"Our goal is to make the BART system safer for passengers and workers, secure a fair pay package and improve working conditions for the people tasked with keeping BART's fleet of trains and miles of track clean, safe and ready," stated Leah Berlanga, chief spokeswoman for the BART workers' bargaining team.
Radulovich is hopeful an agreement can be worked out in order to avoid seeing a strike be called, as happened during his first year on the BART board in 1997.
His main goal as president this year, he said, is to get "our priorities straight" and to ensure that any talks about further extending the system are coupled with plans to maintain the existing stations.
"An extension is great, but it has to be in conjunction with the core system's upkeep," he said.
Castro chain store policy up for vote
At its meeting Thursday afternoon (April 11) the Planning Commission is expected to adopt new rules for upper Market Street aimed at curbing chain stores from opening along the gayborhood's main thoroughfare.
As noted in a February Political Notebook about the proposed restrictions, the new rules are devised to prevent national retailers from opening up in prime corner storefronts on Market Street between Octavia and Castro streets. Already, planning staff has informed Starbucks, Chipotle, and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf that they do not support their applications to open locations at prominent intersections in the gayborhood.
Under the new criteria for formula retail, any project that brings the concentration of chain stores within a 300-foot radius to 20 percent or greater would not be recommended for approval. The retailer could still seek approval from the Planning Commission, though projects disapproved by staffers rarely receive a favorable vote.
District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener is supportive of the rules, as are neighborhood groups such as the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, which helped craft the restrictions.
The commission meets at 12:15 p.m. in Room 400 of City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column discussed refinements made to streetscape plans for Castro Street.
Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes.
Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.