An update on the condition of BART
With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on every aspect of our lives, I chose to focus on one crucial part that regularly goes overlooked. While BART is a critical lifeline in keeping the Bay Area connected, it is often either ignored completely, or bashed for being unreliable. I have always enjoyed public transportation, so discouraged by this judgemental coverage, I went directly to the source. Bob Powers is the General Manager of BART, and a seasoned public planner and developer, with many years of experience. He joined me from his office at BART headquarters, near the 19th Street station.
ME: Public transportation is obviously suffering greatly in the face of covid-19. How has ridership of BART changed with the pandemic?
BOB: We rely pretty heavily on revenue from our riders. When it started in March, we dropped down to like five or six percent of what we were carrying pre-covid.
ME: Wow. Oh my gosh.
BOB: We really bottomed out and like most of California, our ridership started to inch back up. That second wave hit us and then the curve went straight down. It took another vertical drop here, maybe three weeks ago, and now we’re back on that up swing again with our ridership. So we’re around 15, 14 percent of our daily ridership now.
ME: Can you talk about exactly what BART is doing to keep everybody safe?
BOB: We were probably the industry leader, pulling together a set of steps we call the “15 Step Plan” that [make sure] BART is as safe as it can be.
Every single train in our fleet is fogged every single night, you know, with this [he makes a backpack gesture]. Our people are in these foggers; they’re spraying every single car. That’s number one.
Two, it gets wiped down throughout the day. We have personal hand straps, so you don’t have to touch anything. And masks are required in the BART, and we have extra face masks to hand out.
Three, there’ll be public announcements, digital announcements, if you’re down in the San Francisco stations up on the video screens. A lot of other agencies have actually modeled their plan after our plan.
ME: How has BART been financially impacted by coronavirus?
BOB: We’ve been hit very hard in our financial side, and with help from our federal delegation in Washington DC and the money coming in from the CARES act with Speaker Pelosi, Senator[s] Harris and Feinstein, we’re going to be okay through this fiscal year, but we certainly have challenges going into the next fiscal year. So I guess the short answer to this would be you know, we’re going to be okay, but it’s cold. It is going to have long-term impacts and it’s not just one or two years, it’s a 10-year problem.
ME: What is being done to protect frontline workers?
BOB: Every front line person has been issued a set of masks. All of our station agents have got PPE [personal protective equipment]. At every station in the system, we have disinfectant, so you can wash your hands, and we’ve made announcements to the riders. We also have a rapid response team, for whoever tests positive, who goes around and contacts everyone who they’ve been in contact with. It’s a very successful program.
ME: Your new cars are amazing. Are they still coming in?
BOB: Yes, they are still coming in. Bombardier is our supplier, and they are fantastic. They seem to be coming in at a much steadier rate right now, and our ultimate goal is not only to replace the entire fleet, but to increase them so we can run 10 car trains everywhere all the time.
ME: Yeah, like they do in other cities. Like I know London they do like all their trains are the same length. Have there been any employees who have contracted COVID?
BOB: Absolutely. We’ve been quite fortunate on that front. Our essential personnel are getting other essential workers to their jobs, whether it’s at a hospital or grocery store or the water department. We have had folks contract COVID, and they’ve gone in and gotten treatment. We’re not immune to that at all, and our hearts go out to anybody that’s contracted COVID.
ME: What training have your employees received differently in the COVID times?
BOB: A lot of the frontline employees were certainly told which face masks to use, how to wipe down, and how to go about fogging every train every single night. Other pieces of training are just common sense. If you’re sick don’t come into work.
ME: What advice would you give to riders who think it’s not safe to take BART?
BOB: I would say first BART is safe. That BART is doing everything it can to make our transit system the safest that it possibly can. From fogging the trains every night, to everybody wearing face masks, to public notifications and education campaigns. When the economy reopens and vaccines start trickling in, that can feel comfortable and confident that BART is there for them.
ME: Thank you so much, Bob! This was so fun!
BOB: Oh, my pleasure, Luke, it was great talking to you.