Political Notebook: Lesbian BART director Saltzman rules out 4th term

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday November 8, 2023
Share this Post:
BART board member Rebecca Saltzman will not seek reelection next year. Photo: From X
BART board member Rebecca Saltzman will not seek reelection next year. Photo: From X

Lesbian BART director Rebecca Saltzman has ruled out seeking a fourth term in 2024. Her decision had been widely expected, as she reluctantly ran for a third term in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic disrupting the Bay Area regional transit agency.

Had it not been for the global health crisis, Saltzman was prepared three years ago to depart from her District 3 board seat, which covers parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties in the East Bay. Instead, the El Cerrito resident ran unopposed in order to provide continuity of leadership on the BART board.

Last year, for the second time during her 11 years on the oversight body, she served as board president. In a phone interview November 7, a day prior to publicly announcing her decision, Saltzman told the Bay Area Reporter the timing was right for her to step down from the BART board next year.

"I feel we did some important things to move BART in a great direction and get us through the pandemic. Now is the time to pass it off to someone else, to the next generation to run the BART board," said Saltzman, the development director for Bike East Bay.

Last summer Saltzman had told the B.A.R. she was "exploring things" regarding her future plans but wasn't then ready to make any public announcements. She did rule out running for a state legislative seat or for Congress in 2024.

This week, she said she has no immediate plans to seek another elected office. Instead, she will focus her time on her job and being a mom with her wife, Caitlin Stone, to their daughter who turns 4 years old next week.

"I am going to continue working at Bike East Bay and continue being a mom, so that is a big reason why I am not running," said Saltzman. "Most of the time I have been on the BART board I was near working full time and now I have had a kid ... it is challenging to have close to three full-time jobs."

She is the second of the three out BART board members to announce her departure in late 2024. In July, the Political Notebook broke the news that gay BART board member Bevan Dufty would not seek a third term next fall in his District 9 seat that covers San Francisco's eastern neighborhoods.

"Rebecca is so incredibly smart. Her encyclopedic knowledge of transit and environmental legislation and her incredible work ethic have made her a fantastic colleague," said Dufty.

Also departing next year will be BART boardmember Lateefah Simon, a straight ally who holds the East Bay-centered District 7 seat on the oversight body. Simon is running in 2024 to succeed Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who rather than seek another term in the House is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Dianne Feinstein, who died in September at the age of 90.

Several more BART board members are also expected to step down when their current terms end next year. Thus, a majority of the nine board seats are set to have new officeholders.

Queer BART director Janice Li, currently serving as the board's president, told the B.A.R. it will be difficult to lose all three of her progressive colleagues who have announced they are leaving come 2025. She praised Saltzman for mentoring her last year when she was vice president of the board.

"She really went out of the way to show me the ropes and, in a lot of ways, be a mentor to me. I know she didn't need to do that," said Li, who represents BART's District 8 that includes the western neighborhoods of San Francisco and was reelected to a second term last year. "As someone so smart on policy and who really knows her community, I was really grateful for her leadership and her support."

Pandemic hits transit

Even though she had been expecting Saltzman's decision, Li told the B.A.R. Tuesday she was still "sad" about the news.

"I was really grateful for Rebecca's decision to stay on for another term. That was not her original plan when she ran again in 2020," said Li. "She realized the impact the pandemic had on BART right away."

Back in 2020 Saltzman had already told close friends and associates that she planned to announce in mid-March she would leave the BART board when her term was up. But then COVID hit, and Saltzman and Stone agreed she should serve another term even though they were new moms.

"I didn't feel like with the pandemic and crisis we had that it would be fair to pass it off to somebody else," said Saltzman. "I felt I was best qualified to get us through that time period. I am glad I did stay, and we got us through the crisis."

Noting she still has more than a year left in her term, Saltzman said she remains focused on her duties to BART. Chief among them is helping steer the agency through its fiscal crisis, which she stressed didn't "play into my decision at all" not to seek reelection next year.

The transit agency projects it will have a $58 million deficit to plug in its fiscal year that begins July 1, 2024. It is also facing a $307 million deficit in its fiscal year that begins July 1, 2025.

The regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission is set to vote on providing BART with $352 million to help it whittle down its deficit over the next two fiscal years to $13 million. Li told the B.A.R. the BART board and agency staff will work to close the rest from its budget.

"Together, this funding is essential for BART to maintain service until a regional transportation measure in 2026 and a sustainable funding model thereafter," noted Li.

Saltzman told the B.A.R. she is hopeful of seeing the MTC board approve the funding in the coming weeks.

"I think the future of BART is bright. We have managed through the past several years, which have been really challenging," she said. "We have a good financial plan for the next couple years. Now we need to pass a regional measure to get some sort of funding source."

In that regard, Saltzman has been giving community presentations about the proposed regional funding measure for public transit agencies in the Bay Area. She will be working with other transit advocates next year to have the state Legislature sign off on bringing it before voters in three years.

"That outreach is starting now. I am doing presentations to various community groups, explaining why there is a need for it," she said.

With most employers allowing their workforce to abide by a hybrid schedule of working from home most days and only coming into the office twice a week, BART doesn't expect to return to its pre-pandemic ridership levels any time soon. Instead, it is adjusting to a new reality for how riders are using the system.

In September, it changed its schedule to provide more service on weeknights and weekends, as those times are when it sees the highest ridership. While weekday ridership is at 40% to 45% of pre-pandemic levels, daytime ridership on weekends is at 65% to 70% of what it had been prior to 2020, noted Saltzman.

"We want to lean into that," she said.

The agency is trying to address riders' main concerns, added Saltzman, among them their safety. She pointed to "progressive" policing policies the board has instituted and having more unarmed safety personnel onboard the trains as helping riders feel safer.

"A lot of what BART is doing is exciting, and riders are appreciating it," she said.

In light of the recent news about further delays and ballooning costs for the planned BART extension into downtown San Jose, the construction of which is being overseen by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, Saltzman told the B.A.R. she remains confident of seeing it be built. She noted all major infrastructure projects are seeing their price tags balloon due to inflation.

"They are super committed to it," she said. "I am confident. They have been able to bring a lot of funding to it."

Among the achievements she is most proud of as a BART board member, said Saltzman, is working to address the agency's infrastructure needs when she first got elected. The issue was what led her to run for her board seat, as she had been advocating for investments to be made into the "crumbling" system back then. In 2016, she helped secure voter support for a $3.5 billion bond measure to rebuild BART that was on the ballot that fall.

"BART has been one of the most fulfilling and challenging experiences of my life. I really loved it even though it's been really hard," said Saltzman. "The shift will be challenging because I do love it. It has been a big part of my life, but I do think it is the right time to move on."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column previewed Tuesday's off-year elections.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.