If there is a silver lining to be found in the protracted Oakland Airport Connector debate and other BART drama that has ensued over the past couple of years, it’s that BART’s Board of Directors and the agency generally have been subject to an extra measure of public scrutiny. There’s a related silver lining: candidates emerging to challenge lackluster incumbent directors. And not just any challengers, but serious, compelling challengers that deserve our attention. This election, we’re talking about District 8 (the north and west side of San Francisco) and District 4 (Oakland, east of Broadway, and Alameda).
Vigorous but misguided advocacy of the senseless Oakland Airport Connector, coupled with an insensitive brushing aside of well-reasoned opposition expressed by members of the public, is reason enough to unseat current District 4 director Carole Ward Allen. Do we even need a clearer example showing her faulty grasp of riders’ true priorities? Insert a too little, too late approach to police reform, and one cannot help but draw the conclusion that Oakland and Alameda deserve better.
Meanwhile, current District 8 director James Fang is a lonely Republican in San Francisco who has presided for far too long over a district that is gerrymandered if there ever was one (see above map). He has pursued an approach that values flash over substance (cell phone fare payment), not to mention flash over basic common sense (the infamous fare rollback, overwhelmingly disdained by rider surveys). Okay, so he did recently express his support for a BART line to serve the Richmond District — that’s at least something we can agree would be a good thing. But then again, given that he apparently sees BART as primarily a supplier of construction jobs (rather than, you know, a transit operator), Fang is happy to build BART anywhere and everywhere, indiscriminately. So he was bound to come around to his own district sooner or later, and what better time to do so than during election season?
If the BART Board’s suburban tilt isn’t enough to contend with, what’s unforgivable is that even its urban directors (save one) aren’t true urbanists. Like Carole Ward Allen and James Fang, they willingly sign off on ever more distant extensions that not only drain dollars and strain the system, but also lead to the deterioration of their own constituents’ experiences riding the train.
Enter Bert Hill and Robert Raburn. Personally, I am thrilled that both these candidates have stepped up to the plate to challenge the old guard. I won’t repeat all their background information in this post, as you can read about it here and here. Both bring years of valuable transportation advocacy experience, as well as relevant professional and academic expertise. Bert Hill’s platform discusses local connectivity to BART stations; he also emphasizes that funds should be prioritized for maintaining existing track and stations and accommodating future capacity needs, rather than building unsustainable extensions to the hinterlands. Meanwhile, Raburn vehemently criticizes the Oakland Airport Connector, which lies in his home district, and correctly reminds us that in relentlessly pursuing the OAC, the BART Board unnecessarily exposes the agency and its riders to the risks and consequences of taking out a federal TIFIA loan to finance the project. I could not agree more on these points, and I believe both Hill and Raburn will bring perspectives that are underrepresented and sorely needed on the Board.
This is not to say there isn’t necessarily room for growth and improvement. For example, at a candidate forum, Raburn was so insistent on the need to focus on maintaining the core system (instead of pursuing expensive capital projects) that his gut reaction to the idea of building infill stations was “Oh my gosh: another construction project.” I cannot agree with the implication of that remark – that infill stations and suburban extensions belong to the same generic category of undesirable capital projects, and that infill stations “won’t pencil out.” Rather, a few well-chosen urban infill stations are the exact type of capital project that likely will pencil out, by increasing ridership at a fraction of the cost of a new extension, while creating comfortably transit-dependent neighborhoods with denser land uses. But despite that slip-up (in what was otherwise a series of solid, well-presented viewpoints), I didn’t get the sense that an insurmountable ideological barrier was reached. Rather, the reaction seemed more like a vehicle for Raburn to contrast his own world view with that of the current Board, which has moved the OAC and other extensions forward in spite of deferred maintenance needs. Perhaps more importantly, though, I sensed in him an intellectual curiosity and genuine interest in transportation issues, as well as a willingness to engage with details and facts. Ever try to reason with Carole Ward Allen about the facts on the Oakland Airport Connector?
The bottom line is that both Bert Hill and Robert Raburn agree that it’s irresponsible to extend track into far-flung corners of the region when major investments are required to shore up the core system and accommodate future capacity needs. Both candidates understand that BART’s role in the region is not to provide an endless stream of construction jobs and groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but to operate an efficient, clean, functional system that fortifies our urban environment, ties together our region as the backbone of a multimodal network, and ultimately improves our quality of life.
In short, both Hill and Raburn simply get it on so many issues. Either one, and preferably both, would be a breath of fresh air on the Board. With the Board’s current membership, Tom Radulovich too often speaks as the sole voice of reason drowned out by a chorus. A Radulovich-Hill-Raburn trifecta would be a positive development, bringing to bear a team that could exert more influence on Board votes.
I am unfortunately not eligible to vote in either of these races, but I would strongly recommend that readers who live in BART districts 4 and 8 skip past the incumbents on their ballot, and instead cast a vote this time for Robert Raburn in District 4, and Bert Hill in District 8. This November both sides of the Bay can stand together and vote for change at BART. As BART continues to evolve beyond a commuter rail service into an urban metro, the composition of the Board should reflect the evolving nature of the system. We stand to benefit from the expertise and passion that these candidates offer.