With all the special districts in the East Bay, we have dozens of elected officials representing Oakland residents. It’s unfortunate that many of these agencies get very little attention, and most people probably couldn’t even name all the different seats they have to vote for, let alone tell you who their representative is. This low level of engagement makes it especially difficult to unseat poorly performing incumbents. I have high hopes though, that this year, we will be able to do just that with BART Board.
The League of Women Voters Oakland held a forum for the BART Board candidates in September. I posted video of the whole thing at the time, but I thought it might be helpful to break it down a by question for people who didn’t have the time or energy to sit through the whole thing in one go. Out of concerns for length, I am breaking this forum recap into two parts. This is part one.
Carole Ward Allen reminded the audience that she has been on the BART Board for twelve years, and is running again because she wants to finish the work she start two years ago on reforming BART’s police force.
Um. Okay. Look, I certainly do not dispute that reform and oversight of BART police is important. I mean…well, duh. Did you guys read the NOBLE audit (PDF) about BART police management? OMFG. It is shocking.I simply cannot see how someone who let the situation with the BART police get that way under their leadership can have any credibility whatsoever when it comes to fixing the problem. Couple that with the deplorable lack of action by the BART Board in the period after Oscar Grant was shot…well, you know what, I’ll just let Councilmember Desley Brooks say it, as Carol Ward Allen runs out of the room (video by Zennie62):
So, yeah. Carole Ward Allen wants to us to elect her again so that she can fix horrible problems that happened under her watch? She’s proud of the reforms that have happened in the last two years, and sure, wev. Reform was absolutely needed. But the fact that it took someone dying to get action on that? Sorry, that’s the kind of leadership I can live without.
Monique Rivera said that BART needs new leadership and accountability, and touted her 15 years of experience in engineering and construction as giving her the experience necessary to ensure that projects are planned properly and don’t have cost overruns. I do agree that BART needs to be more accountable and have new leadership, but throughout the forum, I got no sense that Rivera was particularly well poised to do it. As for the engineering background, I think that could be helpful when it comes to making decisions about large capital projects. But, on the other hand, I don’t think BART should be doing all these large capital projects in the first place.
Robert Raburn went last, and mostly focused on his background – Ph.D in transportation and urban geography from UC Berkeley, 10 years as an urban planning professor, 18 years with the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, and chair of the Measure B Citizen Watchdog Committee (Measure B is the half-cent transportation sales tax for Alameda County). What’s there to say? Dude has a great resume. Then he said that BART needs to focus on the core system instead of taking on debt for non-essential construction projects, which I think is just a total no-brainer, but of course, the current BART Board disagrees.
Communication with the public
Q: How would you evaluate BART’s communication with the public and response to rider concerns? What could be done to improve communication with the public?
Robert Raburn went first on this one, and noted that after serving for 18 years on BART’s transportation task force for bicycle access, he has seen firsthand how unresponsive the agency is. Then he cited his experience with the ACTIA Citizen Watchdog Committee as an example of what he knows about creating transparent organizations. And I have to say, they do a really good job! Making information about government and finances and big projects like that accessible and understandable to the average person is difficult, and their reports (PDF) do it really well, which is impressive.
Monique Rivera said that BART does a fine job communicating what time the trains are coming, but not such a good job communicating what is going on with the agency itself, noting that they don’t use social media (although, actually, they do) and should be telling people what goes on at Board meetings, and providing more information about the agency in the stations.
I realize this is probably not what she meant, but when she said that, I totally had this vision of BART Board meeting agenda packets sitting there in all the stations for anyone to pick up and read, which personally, I think would be pretty awesome. Probably a waste of money, though. But some sort of informative newsletter (as opposed to the uninformative newsletters they sometimes have at the fare gates) about agency goings-on would be helpful.
Carole Ward Allen said that you can always improve communication, but seemed to think BART was doing okay as is, noting that BART does have Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter accounts, which she said came out of her push for increased transparency.
I don’t have anything against BART’s social media accounts. In fact, I think they’re good marketing tools. But that’s what they are — marketing tools. They’re not transparency tools, and they are not used as such. So it’s concerning that Carole Ward Allen seems to confuse propaganda with dialogue and responsiveness to public concerns. But, of course, it’s not surprising. After all, if she was concerned with what people thought, she wouldn’t have spent the last year and half pushing for the Airport Connector in the face of overwhelming opposition from the public.
Then she said something I didn’t understand at all about how she was responsible for having BART meetings aired on TV, which has been going on for the last couple of years. That’s news to me. What channel is the BART TV station? I wish I had known about it two years ago! Here I was this whole time relying on those audio recordings the BART Voices blog used to post of meetings until BART started offering the video on their website five months ago. I gotta find me that station, though! It sounds cool.
BART’s two most significant challenges
Q: What are the two most significant challenges facing BART, and how would you address those?
Monique Rivera said that BART needs accessibility and accountability, calling the BART police reforms too little, too late, which — WORD. And also that ridership can be increased with more outreach to younger people and seniors, and better connections with transit, like the bus and the ferry. She kept bringing up this thing about young people and seniors a couple of times during the forum, and I have to say, I’m not really sure I understand where that’s coming from. I mean, I have nothing against BART having young and old riders, but I also never got the sense that there was some particular problem attracting either of those groups to the system. Every time I ride BART, there seem to be a lot of loud teenagers on the train. Maybe that’s just me, though.
Carole Ward Allen said that safety & security are major issues, and she wants to continue the police forms they’ve started. I think I’ve covered my feelings on that pretty well already.
For her second priority, she offered that because of high unemployment and the recession, it’s very important to create jobs. Okay, just no. BART is a transit agency. It is not a jobs program. I mean, no wonder the system is in such bad shape if that’s how Board members think of their responsibilities.
BART is supposed to get people to work. It’s not there to create make-work. That is just flat out the wrong attitude. Yes, there are a lot of awful problems in Oakland and in the world, and I am concerned about the economy and unemployment too. But it is not BART’s job to solve all of them. BART’s job is to run trains.
Robert Raburn said that BART’s main problems are reliability and the sustainability of their finances long term, and that we need to restore the dramatic cuts in service, clean the trains and stations (which are really starting to get disgusting, BTW), and start looking at operations and capital costs from a long-term perspective. THANK YOU, ROBERT. I mean, I don’t really have anything to add to it. Yes, that is exactly what BART’s focus needs to be.
Coliseum Station transit village
Q: What are your thoughts and plans around the transit village development in Oakland and Coliseum BART statoin?
Carole Ward Allen talked about how phase 2 of the Lion Creek Crossings development would bring more affordable and senior housing, and said she’d like to see a bicycle station at the Coliseum station, possibly with bikes for rent. Again, the BART Board’s job is to make the trains run on time. Literally. That’s their job. Creating affordable housing is not.
Robert Raburn said that the Lion Creek development is good, but is not truly transit oriented because it lacks the basic amenities required to make going to and from the station safe and accessible, like having any lighting for people on the way to the station or curb cuts for people with wheelchairs. Good point!
Monique Rivera talked about how the Fruitvale Transit Village is successful, and then said the Coliseum Station is used for lots of different purposes — people going to work and then also to sports games. I couldn’t really follow her answer.
Oakland Airport Connector
Q: What is your position on the Oakland Airport Connector?
Robert Raburn condemned the Airport Connector for creating “unprecedented financial risk” to the system, failing to meet the criteria that had been part of the voter pamphlet for Measure B, from which it gets a significant amount of funding, and for creating a debt burden on passengers. He concluded by saying that BART needs to refocus on the core system instead of construction projects, and start maintaining their tracks and trains, and running the trains more frequently.
That about says it all, right? I mean, I have written so much about the Airport Connector here, and I know that my readers have gotten pretty fatigued with it, so I’m not going to go all into it again. (If you missed all that, you can catch up here or here or here). But yeah. It’s an awful project that delivers no value to riders — it will be slower than the bus that runs right now, patrons will be required to walk father to get to it than they are now (on both ends), and it will probably run less frequently too. And it is costing half a billion dollars, assuming no cost overruns, which is of course, a ridiculous assumption considering BART’s history. And the worst part is (and I think a lot of people don’t realize this), it’s largely being paid for by loans backed by fare revenue. That means that when the tram is a failure, every rider on the BART system will suffer for it in the form of service cuts and fare increases. It’s awful.
Monique Rivera also did not like the Airport Connector project, and said that if the BART Board has members that understood engineering, they wouldn’t be doing it like this. Yeah, she’s right. Not a ton more to say there.
Carole Ward Allen, of course, a staunch supporter of the Airport Connector, said that it’s been on the drawing board for more than 30 years and that it will bring 5,000 jobs and that the groundbreaking will be taking place soon.
Ugh. This jobs thing. I don’t want to rehash all that debate again — it’s just too draining. But for those who don’t remember that whole thing, BART’s legal documents submitted to the Federal government about the project say that it will create a total of 689 direct and indirect short-term construction jobs, and 30 permanent jobs. For months, they made presentations to various government agencies saying it would bring a total of 200-300 temporary local jobs. After getting hammered over how wasteful the whole thing was at meeting after meeting, with people pointing out that spending over a million dollars per short-term job was not particularly efficient, BART officials suddenly changed their tune starting using new ones that they picked, as far as I can tell, at random. It’s a lie, and it’s gross.
As far as the “groundbreaking” ceremony is concerned? Well, it happened the other day. But no actual ground was broken. Construction on the project won’t start for months. But it makes for a nice pre-election photo-op for BART Board incumbents concerned in competitive races.
In any case, her relentless support for the Airport Connector is reason enough to kick Carole Ward Allen off the BART Board. Thank goodness we have someone as experienced, knowledgeable, hard-working, and competent as Robert Raburn ready to step up and take her place.
Oh gosh, just thinking about the Airport Connector all over again makes me exhausted. And this post is getting pretty long anyway. I’m going to stop here and do the rest of the forum tomorrow. Have a great weekend, folks!