BART: Moving Toward a Brighter Future

Nov. 11, 2011
New projects, policies and vehicles are giving the community a lot of things to look forward to.

"Oscar Grant, Young Father and Peacemaker, Executed by BART Police"

"Johannes Mehserle, White Cop Who Shot Unarmed Black Man Oscar Grant Gets Two Years in Prison"

"Justice for Charles Hill BART Action Shuts Three Stations in San Francisco"

"BART Board Asks Dorothy Dugger to Resign"

"BART Cellphone Blocking Raises Uproar"

"Anonymous Hackers Attack BART"

Those are just a few of the headlines the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) has been facing over the past few years. And while the media coverage has us so focused on these topics, there are many other positive things that have been happening at BART.

Two weeks after she started, I sat down with BART's new general manager, Grace Crunican, to learn what they are working on, how they are moving forward and also, why she came to BART.

"BART is a good facility," Crunican says. "I understand that they've had some troubles and we had two very sad tragedies on our hands with the shootings. Those tragedies have set a tone here that everyone's very sorry for what happened and we're trying to figure out how we move forward and I thought it would be a good challenge to work with them."

She continues, "I enjoy problem solving. I enjoy a challenge and this is a challenge so that's why I'm having a good time."

A Background in Transportation

Crunican was born and raised in Portland and attended Gonzaga University for political science and criminal justice. While there, she started working for Neil Goldschmidt, the mayor of Portland at the time.

"One of my jobs was taking in complaints in the transit mall construction," Crunican explains. "They were building a new mall – it was a big idea at the time, hadn't been done – and I listened to all the businesses."

After getting her degree, she continued to work for the mayor and felt public service was a good fit for her, so she then went on to get her business administration degree and was also accepted in to the Presidential Management Intern (PMI) program, which was a program developed to attract and develop the federal sector's future managers.

During her time in the PMI, she had a rotation at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in D.C. "I did a cost-benefit analysis of three jurisdictions ... where the service was, who raised what revenue, who got what for it and that sort of thing.

"From there I worked in the secretary's office. Mort Downey was the deputy of budget at the time and I worked with him and Sarah Campbell and Anne Canby."

After that Crunican went to the Senate's Committee on Appropriations and was the staffer for the transportation subcommittee for a couple of years before going back to Portland as the capital projects manager. After working her way up to deputy, she went back to D.C. and ran a surface transportation policy project, which was a group of people interested in implementing the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA).

She then served as the deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration for three years and one of the projects she worked on was the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) extension.

She then went to Oregon to run the Oregon Department of Transportation, looking at all forms of transportation and how the system fits together. From there she went to the Seattle Department of Transportation and was the director for eight years. "We worked on transit there in terms of putting in a streetcar line for the city and then we tried to change our policies to be friendlier toward transit, bikes, walking, make the car kind of fit in," she says. "No one objects to having cars around, but they need to be planned for and they need to be respectful of transit, walkers and bikers."

Of coming to BART she says, "If you're in to transportation management, you're in to transportation management.

"I had never run a transit agency before, so I wanted to do that and was delighted they were interested in me." She says, "I really think that it's not just transit. It's connections on walking, it's connections with the road, where the park-and-rides are, how well does that work? I see bicycles all over so I'm expecting to do a better job with bike lockers, maybe get some bike stations coordinated with our stops; that connection is really important."

Expansion in the Bay Area

BART currently has three extensions going on. eBART will have a new type of train for BART, diesel multiple units (DMUs). The DMU was chosen Crunican says because in order to have any extensions, they needed something that was affordable and the eBART project is 60 percent less expensive than conventional BART.

"Some people feel lesser for it and some are just thrilled to have the access," she states. "I think it's very exciting and I think BART was very creative to keep things expanding while they knew they had a huge system replacement going on."

eBART will go to East Contra Costa County, from Pittsburgh out to Antioch. The project was adopted in 2009 and construction began early this year.

The Oakland Airport Connector will replace the shuttle BART currently operates to the airport. "I've used the shuttle a number of times, so I can understand why the connection is good," Crunican says. "It's quite a hefty price -- $480 million, it's under half a million dollars, but it will help with the integration. It will come close for people to just walk from there just a short distance."

The third extension is the Warm Springs Extension, which will add 5.4 miles of new tracks from the existing Fremont station south to a new station in the City of Fremont, at the border of the Santa Clara Line. Crunican says, "We get down to Santa Clara and then the Santa Clara system, the VTA, takes it in close to the edge of San Jose and they'll work their way in over time.

"At some point I think you'll pick it up down in San Francisco and actually loop the Bay." She continues, "That's in the broader vision. I don't think it's a pipe dream, I think it's an excellent vision to provide a nice framework for future growth and development."

Fleet of the Future

BART's cars have been transporting riders since 1972 and though still running, they are nearing the end of their useful life. Crunican says, "They're looking rather tired right now and just operation-wise, we don't want to let them go so long their failure begins to impact operations."

So to maintain the reliability that BART's after, they've started a rehabilitation program. They will have 200 cars replaced in a couple of years and then project an additional 250 cars in both 2021 and 2024.

BART has had extensive community feedback with detailed concepts for the new train cars designed by BMW Group DesignworksUSA. Through a series of open house meetings, online interaction and seat test labs, people have had the opportunity to provide feedback on what they want in the new cars.

Getting rid of the cloth seats and providing room for bicycles are two issues that are critical. "We'll be upgrading seats in 100 cars, the vinyl seat with the cushion underneath ... and that difference will get people excited about 200 new cars," Crunican says.

A Great Service Marred by Tragedy

Though BART is "just a rail system," Crunican says it provides more. "It provides interconnections and intermodal service. We don't run buses for the most part, but we have a few shuttles that we're responsible for."

BART has 208 miles of track (double-tracked), 44 stations, 47,000 parking spaces, a 65 percent farebox recovery rate and a 95 percent on-time performance rate.

Luna Salaver, public information officer for BART and Capitol Corridor Joint Power Authority, says of the on-time performance rate, "That is something we're really proud of because we make it our mission to get people where they need to go even when the bridge went out after the earthquake and when I-880 melted down. There was a huge truck fire and people couldn't get back and forth between San Francisco and Oakland." BART is what kept the Bay Area connected.

Of the earthquake, Crunican adds, "Twenty minutes after the earthquake hit we were up and running and nothing else was, so that's a nice reflection on the work that people have done."

Despite its accomplishments, BART has been facing an image problem, at the root of which is two tragic shootings.

Former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant on a BART train platform in Oakland early New Year's Day in 2009. Mehserle testified that fearing Grant may have a weapon, he said he was going to shock Grant with his Taser but pulled out his handgun and shot Grant in the back.

In July of 2010, the jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, which rose tensions in Oakland where rioting ensued.

In July of this year, a confrontation occurred between two BART police officers and Charles Hill, a homeless man. Calls had been received about an apparently drunk man at the station and Hill was apparently armed with two knives and a bottle when one of the officers shot and killed him.

Crunican stresses, "One of the things I want to make sure is that we are giving the officers a lot of training and enough training."

BART Chief of Police Kenton Rainey came to the organization in June of 2010, around the time they were starting the trial process for Mehserle.

Coming in to a tough situation, Chief Rainey sought this position out, he says. "It was something I wanted to do. Using public transportation growing up on the south side of Chicago, my family, we didn't own a car, so we got around through mass transit.

"I understand it and I believe in it. I really believe in the product."

He knew it would be a huge challenge and he says, "I thought I have the necessary skills to lead the organization back and forward as far as what the board was looking for, for a change and to bring accountability into this organization." He adds, "Those are the types of things I've been known for throughout my career."

He explains every law enforcement officer in the state of California has to have at least 24 hours of Continuing Professional Training every two years. In the wake of the Oscar Grant incident, the district has appropriated enough money for its officers to receive 40 hours of training every year. "So they're taking this very, very seriously and really stepped up and appropriated the necessary funding."

What's been very important to Rainey is Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). He explains as they've done research, just within the county, of the law enforcement officers killed in the last 10 years, they had been killed by somebody suffering from a mental illness. And 70 percent of officer-involved shootings through out the county involved somebody with a mental illness.

He says this really put the spotlight on that it's not just the mental illness; it's an officer safety issue. "So we made a conscious choice to train all our field officers in crisis intervention," he says. "And now we've expanded it to include regular line officers so by the end of October, we'll have an additional 20 officers trained, so that's 44 officers trained.

"A lot of people don't understand," he says, "it's not like a traditional class where you have one instructor come in. You're trying to coordinate schedules of mental health professionals, people affiliated with the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill (NAMI), doctors, other practitioners and they get people who have suffered from mental illness but are on medications to explain what it's like – this is what I experience when I'm not on my meds and when I am on my meds."

Of the CIT Rainey says, "It's very intensive coursework to really give an officer a better perspective when they go in to these situations." He adds, "The more tools we can put in our personnel's took kit when they go out there, the individual that we're trying to get help for, the better off for our personnel."

The latest controversy came when BART shut off cell service in some of its stations to prevent protests and to maintain safety, which then created free speech controversy and BART was consequently compared to oppressive governments and Middle East dictators.

Crunican says there is a program to get a new cell phone policy in place. "The approach in the future is if it's an extreme situation, like a bombing or a terrorist threat, then that should be an option. And, I suppose if the demonstration were in the very extreme nature and qualified as a threat, we would be considering it." Working with the ACLU, they put together a draft policy and they are moving ahead.

Planning for Change

BART has gone through the specific problems that were on the table and they are addressing those and overall, Crunican says she's trying to reach out into the community and listen to what they have to say.

"I think there's concern about a lot of things. The economy's really bad, people are really nervous about a lot of things, so it's good to listen." During her first two weeks she's been to four stations so far, covering about 20 people at each, really talking with them about what works, what doesn't, what they like, what they don't.

"We were in trouble with our customers, or I was told that, so I wanted to go out and meet with them and just once a week, it isn't anything fancy, I just pick a station and I stand there for an hour," says Crunican. "I'm out there with a big sign that says I'm the general manager and people can come up and yell at me – some of them do, someone did this morning – most are very polite and tell me what's bugging them. If they're not telling me, I'm asking them."

She says, "I think we need to reconnect with the customer and the community. It's not just the rider, it's the broader community, and make sure that we're responding to their needs and make sure that we're respectful of their needs."

The travels also take her to talk to the station agents. "What's interesting to me," she says, "is their observations are very similar to the customers in each station.

"If they're worried about lighting or if they're worried about escalators or the elevators, the station agents and the customers are all worried about the same things; some things that characterize the individual stations."

Regarding the customers' responses, she says, "No. 1, most people do like BART. Apart from the tragedies, they like the system, they think it works well, it's very reliable, it's very dependable. Reliability is the No. 1 thing they like about BART.

"Then they get to the cleanliness issue," she says. "What's interesting is, I talk to my operations folks and they prioritize reliability, safety and cleanliness and when they get to cleanliness, they prioritize trains, then stations, then the escalators and outside and the riders rank them in that order.

"The cleanliness of the cars is better than the cleanliness of the stations, is better than the cleanliness of the escalators. So what that tells me is, what gets measured gets done." She adds, "We need to hit a little more on the cleanliness side, so I have to talk to my operations department about that."

Looking to the Future

With the state of the economy, Crunican says they'll be right there with the mix of everybody else, "We're no better, we're no worse than everybody else.

"I think any community that wants to better itself should invest in education, so I would put them first. I certainly think there are some issues out there that are critical; health is critical."

She continues, "We're one of the important issues that are out there. We sometimes have user fees that can be used to invest in and certainly an investment in infrastructure is a long-term, good, solid investment. But people falling through the cracks immediately is also a worry." She adds, "I think we're all going to fair poorly over the next few years because we're in a recession/depression I think people don't want to talk about."

Crunican states, "We've been a terrific agency in the past and we will be a terrific agency again and we need to get out there and confront the issues that are in front of us and get to it and the sooner the better.

"I believe in the people that work here; public servants are very dedicated. When the world's addressing really tough issues, the public employees are there trying to serve folks well."

She states, "When the earthquake happened, BART employees, it's my understanding, really rose to the occasion. They really got out there letting people know BART was running, first of all they got BART back open." She continues, "I think public employees are great servants and they've come under a lot of fire, but working with them and inspiring them is part of what the job is.

"We're not going to turn this around right away but we have to try and we have to stay with it.


Photo courtesy of BART.
BART Chief of Police Kenton W. Rainey.