BART Eyes Tax Election to Pay for New Rail Cars

May 24, 2011
BART plans to ask voters in Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties to approve a parcel tax to raise $900 million to $1 billion to replace its aging train cars.

BART plans to ask voters in Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties to approve a parcel tax to raise $900 million to $1 billion to replace its aging train cars.

The tax measure, requiring two-thirds approval, might appear on the ballot as early as November 2012, BART board members said. The timing, amount and other details of the measure are yet to be determined.

BART board members said in recent interviews they have concluded it's only a matter of when, not if they go to voters with a tax measure. BART's sleek, silver-colored electric train cars are wearing out, and federal and state grants won't cover the full cost of replacing them, board members said.

"BART is going to have to ask its voters if they would support additional funding for new train cars," said Bob Franklin, the transit system board president. "We've got to have a local match."

BART estimates it could cost roughly $3.2 billion to $3.4 billion to get 775 to 1,000 new train cars.

The train system currently operates 669 cars. Extra new cars are needed to accommodate anticipated ridership growth from the current 350,000 passengers per weekday to 500,000 per weekday in 2035, BART officials said.

Some cars are as old as 40, giving BART the oldest train cars among American's public transit cars.

Without replacements, the cars will become more difficult to maintain, break down more often, and erode BART's highly touted performance record of delivering 95 to 96 percent of riders to their destinations on time.

"The reliability of our service is at stake," said Joel Keller, a longtime BART board member form Brentwood. "You can't keep running a public transit system with 40-year-old cars."

Some tax watchdogs are unhappy. They said BART should have stashed away money over the past four decades to replace cars instead asking taxpayers' help in economically trying times.

"I was a little shocked they hadn't put money aside for these cars. You've got to think they knew this was coming," said Kris Hunt, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association. "We have serious concerns about dumping yet another load onto the backs of taxpayers."

On the other hand, Hunt said, the federal practice of doling out large grants for capital improvements gives BART and other transit operators little incentive to sock away local money.

Ken Hambrick, chairman of the Alliance of Contra Costa Taxpayers, said BART should trim its worker salaries, health and pension benefits before hitting up taxpayers.

"When you're paying someone $60,000 a year plus benefits to sit in a glass box in a station, you need to control your costs before asking taxpayers for more money," Hambrecht said.

BART officials said their last employment contract agreement in 2009 extracted millions of dollars per year in cost saving measures from workers.

BART directors said fare money may help pay for the new cars, and the district is considering setting aside a portion of its annual budget for cars and other capital projects.

BART Director Gail Murray of Walnut Creek said it would be impractical to increase fares to raise all the money for the new cars.

"The higher fares would price people out of BART and drive them into cars," Murray said. "Our goal is to get people out of their cars, which reduces congestion and air pollution."

BART last went to voters to raise taxes in 2004 when it won two-thirds approval for a $980 million bond measure for seismic upgrades to the rail system.

State law, however, bars bond money from being spent on moving equipment like train cars, said BART spokesman Linton Johnson.

BART officials didn't have a breakdown available on how much an average homeowner would pay from a parcel tax. The amount of a tax isn't known yet in part because the size of the car order hasn't been determined.

BART Director Robert Rayburn of Oakland said he would like the transit system to consider acquiring more than 1,000 new cars so trains can arrive more often.

"I think we need to have solid car plan now, and I don't see it yet." Raburn said. "Do we order 700 cars, 1,000 cars, or can we afford 1,200 cars to improve our service?"

When to go before voters is another question.

The November 2012 ballot might seem like an opportune time because presidential elections draw large voter turnouts, which can improve the chances of passage for tax or fee measures.

BART officials, however, are concerned the 2012 ballot could be too crowded with tax and fee measures by school districts and other agencies hurt by the state's budget problems.

Also, the Alameda County Transportation Authority plans to go to voters that election for early renewal of its half-cents sales tax for transportation.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission also is looking into the possibility of a regional gas tax ballot measure in 2012 to fix deteriorating roads and ease public transit service cuts, said Randy Rentschler, a commission spokesman. More study must be done before any regional measure is proposed, he added.

"If the ballot is too crowded with tax measures, voters could get fed up and vote everything down," said Keller of the BART board. "But if we wait, we can't wait much longer."

The transit agency later this year is expected to select a company to design and build the train cars, which will delivered over the next eight to 10 years.

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at . Read the Capricious Commuter at .

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