What Happens When We Don’t Invest in Transit and How We Can Do Better

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(Photo by ABC News)

By Scott Wiener

Today, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) Board of Directors is taking a huge step forward by placing a $3.5 billion regional bond on the November ballot. This bond will help BART close its gaping capital investment deficit, expand its capacity, improve its reliability, and bring its system into a state of good repair.

The focus on shoring up BART and expanding its capacity is long overdue, given that this critical system is literally coming apart at the seams due to extreme regional negligence in supporting it. Indeed, BART is a poster child for what happens when we don’t invest in transit. If we don’t get it together as a region in terms of transit, we are in for a world of hurt. We need to pass this bond, pass other transit funding measures, demand more from the state and federal governments, and make sure we never, ever again allow our transit systems to go into decline.

As the Bay Area continues to grow — by 2 million people between now and 2040 — we need our transit systems to be strong and to keep up. Otherwise we will have an additional million cars on Bay Area roads and freeways, harming our environment, our quality of life, and our ability to create and attract jobs. Please, let’s not allow that to happen.

The facts — the good, bad, and ugly (mostly the latter) — about Bay Area transit are stark. In the 1960s and 1970s, the region thought boldly. It built BART, opening this amazing system in 1972. As part of that visionary undertaking, BART and Muni created the Market Street subway, connecting the Embarcadero to west of Twin Peaks, and BART connected downtown to the Mission, southern San Francisco, and northern San Mateo County.

Can we even imagine what San Francisco and the Bay Area would be like without BART and without the Market Street subway line? The congestion we see on our roads today would seem like child’s play. Thank heaven that the Bay Area had the vision to create these systems. Let’s get that vision back today.

After the Bay Area accomplished these visionary things in the 1970s, the region moved on. BART was allowed to age to the point where much of its infrastructure today is the same infrastructure that was installed in 1972 when I was two years old. Muni was similarly allowed to deteriorate. Caltrain remained an old-school train system that was never upgraded to a modern rail service for this major metropolitan area.

In addition, after these systems were built in the 1960s and 1970s, we stopped expanding them, at least in San Francisco. Since 1980, San Francisco has grown by 200,000 people, and the Bay Area as a whole has grown by 2.5 million people. Yet, during that period, we have not opened up a single additional inch of subway capacity in San Francisco. While BART has built some expansions in the East Bay, the region has not bulked BART up in the urban core.

We see the consequences every day. BART, at times, seems like it’s falling apart, and it sometimes is. Whether it’s electrical failures, rail problems, vehicle breakdowns, or train control problems, the system has endless problems. Muni struggles as well. Road congestion is extreme, and Bay Area residents are pessimistic about our transportation future.

And, all of our major transit systems have severe capacity problems. BART hit 400,000 daily trips about a decade before projected. Caltrain has nearly doubled its ridership, and Muni is bursting at the seams. There are times when you physically cannot get onto a vehicle.

In a way, these are good problems to have. We want people to ride transit. Having strong transit ridership bodes well, as more people want to get around without a car. But, if we don’t invest in these systems in a massive way, we will have a huge problem. Now is the time to play catch up and to move aggressively forward toward a pro-transit future.

Good things are finally happening, and we *must* keep up the political momentum. For example:

  • We are closing BART’s capital investment deficit — a deficit approaching $5 billion over the next decade — through the November bond and commitments from San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties to help BART fund its vehicle replacement and expansion plan. BART is replacing every vehicle in its fleet and expanding the fleet.
  • Caltrain is replacing its vehicles and significantly expanding its capacity. Caltrain is also electrifying, which will significantly improve performance.
  • Muni is gradually replacing every vehicle in its fleet. Many buses have already been replaced by new vehicles, and the next generation of light rail vehicles — to replace the unreliable and poorly designed Breda vehicles — will begin arriving later this year. Muni will ultimately have nearly double the number of light rail vehicles it currently has, and those vehicles will be more reliable. In 2014, I authored Proposition B, which ties transit funding to population growth. Prop B is helping to fund these efforts.
  • High speed rail is coming to the Bay Area, first to San Jose, then to San Francisco.
  • We are building the Transbay Transit Center and will then extend both Caltrain and High Speed Rail to the Center.
  • We are beginning to plan for a second transbay crossing, to improve BART’s capacity and reach, to connect Caltrain to the Capitol Corridor, and ultimately to get High Speed Rail to the East Bay.
  • In a few years, Muni will open the Central Subway, the first new subway in San Francisco in nearly 40 years and a critical north-south connection. On the day the Central Subway opens (connected to the T line), it will become the highest ridership light rail line, passing even the N Judah.
  • Various counties in the Bay Area have gone or are going to the ballot with transit funding measures. San Francisco will go to the ballot this November with an additional half cent sales tax dedicated to transportation needs. In 2014, San Francisco voters passed a major transportation bond.

Yet, we have enormous work to do. To ensure our exploding population can get around our region efficiently, we must have better partnerships from the state and from the federal government. The state has begun to do more by devoting a portion of cap and trade funding to transit, but the state does not do enough. Indeed, the state has significantly dropped the ball by adopting a crazy gas tax formula that causes gas taxes to go down when gas prices drop, leading to significant transportation cuts. The federal government has also not done enough. The federal gas tax has not been increased, even by inflation, since 1993, meaning that in real dollars, it produces about half of what it yielded 23 years ago.

Investing in transit isn’t optional. It matters big-time. Let’s recommit ourselves to have the political will to sustain our recent pro-transit momentum, to stop repeating past Bay Area mistakes, and to demand that our state and federal partners do more.


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Paid for by Re-Elect Scott Wiener for State Senate 2020. FPPC # 1392654. 4035 18th St., San Francisco, CA 94114.

Near the following Muni lines: F, J, K, L, M, T, 22, 24, 33, 35

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