Political Notes: Queer SF BART director Li launches reelection bid

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday June 13, 2022
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BART director Janice Li is running for reelection to her District 8 seat that covers part of San Francisco. Photo: Steven Underhill
BART director Janice Li is running for reelection to her District 8 seat that covers part of San Francisco. Photo: Steven Underhill

With the support of her two out colleagues on the board that oversees the Bay Area's regional transit agency BART, board member Janice Li is officially kicking off her bid for reelection Monday. The first queer woman of color and the first Asian American woman on the board, Li is the only Asian member of one of the country's three elected transit boards.

Li, 35, was first elected to her District 8 seat on the BART board in 2018 and is currently serving as the oversight body's vice president. Should she win reelection to a second four-year term in November, Li would be poised to become board president in 2023.

Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter by phone June 10, Li said she wants to remain on the BART board to ensure a number of pilot programs she pushed for, and were part of her first campaign platform, became a permanent part of the transit agency. They include the system's low-income fare program and its ambassador program, where unarmed police officers assist people on BART trains who are unhoused or in some form of crisis to connect to services.

"I didn't want to just be the start-up person. I wanted to see a lot of this through," explained Li, who also wants to become president next year so she can further advocate for the needs of San Francisco riders of the transit system. "As president of the board next year I can bring more focus, attention, and energy on service changes needed in San Francisco. If someone else where to defeat me, they are not going to be president next year."

The filing deadline for candidates to enter the race is not until early August. Li said it remains to be seen if she will face a formidable challenger for her seat. No matter if she does, Li said she plans to campaign for reelection as hard as she did as a first-time candidate.

"I don't take anything for granted," said Li, adding, "if there are multiple candidates in this race, I look forward to engaging them."

Under the new redistricted boundaries adopted in March for the board's nine seats, District 8 now has partial jurisdiction over BART's Embarcadero, Montgomery Street, Powell Street, and Glen Park stations and full oversight of the Balboa Park station. It wraps around the city's northern and western neighborhoods to cover North Beach; Chinatown; the Marina, Richmond and Sunset districts, Ingleside, and Balboa Park.

Bevan Dufty, a gay man who holds the BART board's District 9 seat that covers much of the rest of San Francisco, and Lateefah Simon, whose District 7 seat on the BART board includes the city's Bayview and Treasure Island neighborhoods, have both endorsed Li's reelection bid. The BART board's current president, Rebecca Saltzman, a lesbian whose District 3 seat includes part of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, has also endorsed Li, as has District 2 BART Director Mark Foley.

LPAC, which works to elected out women to public office, has early endorsed Li, as have gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and the city's two Democratic Assemblymembers Phil Ting and Matt Haney. San Francisco Supervisors Catherine Stefani (District 2), Gordon Mar (District 4), Myrna Melgar (District 7), Hillary Ronen (District 9), and Board President Shamann Walton (District 10) are all backing Li in the race.

Formerly the advocacy director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Li in January took over as director of the Coalition for Community Safety and Justice. She leads the coalition's programs and AAPI community-based safety initiatives.

As of now, there are no Asian elected members on the boards of the Denver Regional Transportation District in Colorado or the East Bay's AC Transit. Running in November for the at-large seat on the board that overs public transportation services in Alameda and Contra Costa counties is nonbinary designer and artist Alfred Twu, who serves on Berkeley's planning and landmarks commissions.

COVID affects transit

The COVID pandemic over the last two years severely impacted public transit agencies across the country, which are still struggling to return to their service capacity they had prior to the health crisis. With many companies continuing to allow their employees to work remotely, transit systems are seeing new ridership patterns and having to adjust their service schedules.

For BART, which turns 50 this year, that has meant more ridership on weekends and in evenings, while the morning commute is now spread out over a longer period of time than in the past. Its weekday ridership is back to almost 40% of what it had been in March 20220, while weekend ridership is at about 60% of where it had been prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

"We don't expect to be back 100% pre-pandemic ridership for a long time," said Li.

Avoiding fare increases during the pandemic, the board last week signed off on increasing the price of a ride on BART that will vary depending on the length of the trip. It should be only a few more cents on the dollar for most riders as of July 1.

"Our fare increases are tied to inflation, and we know inflation is out of control," said Li. "We still need to approve it as part of our budget. If we don't make the fare increase now, we will have to make an even bigger fare jump down the line."

Li continues to push to make it more affordable for low-income individuals to ride BART. She has asked the agency's staff to present to the board in September how to make the agency's low-income fare program accessible to more people. Right now only people making 200% below the federal poverty line are eligible.

"That eligibility is really low," said Li. "I would like to offer a bigger discount."

She has also been critical of the funding estimates and projected operating costs for the BART extension planned to travel through downtown San Jose and end in Santa Clara, with an opening date now set for 2029 at the earliest. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority is building the project to BART standards then BART will operate it.

Since the project was initially approved, the projected ridership has been downgraded while the estimated operating costs have increased, with concerns that South Bay transit officials and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo have not been forthcoming about the true costs with the public. There is also an ongoing debate on how best to build the underground tunnels and stations for the line extension, which Li is not weighing in on since she is "not an engineer," she told the B.A.R.

"I am most focused on making sure the finances work out," said Li, who also is withholding judgment on the actions of the leaders until an independent review committee completes its investigation into the matter. "I do want to make sure it is not a rubber stamp committee but asking hard questions."

As for how such issues may impact voters' views of her candidacy remains to be seen. Nor is it clear if Li's vocal support as a transit advocate for keeping the Great Highway along San Francisco's Ocean Beach and JFK Drive through Golden Gate Park car free will negatively impact her bid for the BART seat, as the two changes to the major commuter arteries that fall within her BART district have been extremely controversial.

"I am not the SFMTA," said Li, referring to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency that oversees the city's streets and its own Muni transit system. "I hope people recognize and acknowledge if they are voting on me for BART board my race is about making sure BART is the safest, best, reliable transit system."

In her BART board role, Li stressed, "I cannot make decisions to make Muni or the SFMTA better. I literally have nothing to do with the Great Highway."

Asked about the planning underway to possibly extend a tunnel for Muni and/or BART service from downtown San Francisco underneath Geary Boulevard then cutting under Golden Gate Park to meet up perhaps with the existing stations at Balboa Park, Li said she supported moving ahead with studying such a proposal but also expressed some cautions with the idea.

"I think public transit is great and I am always open to small fixes and big, visionary fixes about how to provide better public transit systems in the bay," said Li, adding that two key questions that would need to be answered about the tunnel idea is "how this would fit into the future of San Francisco, and where housing is going to be built."

Along with securing significant federal funding to pay for such an extension, voters would also need to approve it, argued Li. And for that to happen, the local transit agencies need to be successfully running the systems they have now.

"You've got to do the nuts and bolts before you have the dessert," said Li. "You've got to provide high quality, reliable transit before you start thinking what that grand future vision is."

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