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Thursday, March 17, 2016

The $3.5 Billion Reasons Why BART is Tweeting Honestly

Posted By on Thu, Mar 17, 2016 at 2:08 PM

click image Now that makes cents. - FLICKR/MICHAEL MANDLBERG
  • Flickr/Michael Mandlberg
  • Now that makes cents.

BART is making nationwide news today — for at least some of the right reasons.

On Wednesday night, following the first of what promises to be several days of hellacious commutes — thanks, it would appear, to a section of track along the Pittsburg-Bay Point line that's spiking in voltage, knocking almost a tenth of BART's fleet of train cars out of commission and shutting down two stations entirely — the regional transit agency began engaging riders in a direct and straightforward manner. 

Transit agencies "getting real" — or at least real millennial-friendly, with GIFs replacing graphs and emojis not off-limits — has been a thing for some time. (Rest assured, LA Metro: Nobody can touch you.) BART's turn towards straight talk was refreshing enough to earn the agency praise from national publications like New York magazine and Vox. "Wow," Gawker mused. "Finally some honesty from the government."

But there's a real pragmatic reason why BART is speaking plainly to its people: those same people are likely to be asked to tax themselves on BART's behalf this fall.

Like most transit systems, BART is funded by a combination of passenger fares and tax revenue. BART receives more of its money directly from its passengers than most transit agencies — a metric called the "farebox recovery ratio" — but the $481 million in estimated annual ticket fares don't cover the entire nut. The rest comes from sales and property taxes from around the Bay area.

But those are all "operational" expenses — those don't cover new train cars, new rails, and maybe even a second Transbay tube, all of which are "capital" expenses. Money to cover capital costs either comes from state or federal governments — good luck with that in Paul Ryan's Congress — or from the voters in the form of new taxes or a new bond.

BART has been polling passengers on the likelihood of a bond being passed for a few years now, most recently on whether a $4.5 billion bond will be palatable to voters. Currently, the BART Board of Directors has before it a plan to ask voters to approve a $3.5 billion bond in November, still in draft form, that it could choose to put before voters.

Several political types observed almost immediately the direct link between BART striking a conversational tone with riders who will, before they know it, be asked to give BART more money at the ballot box.

Is this BART engaging in campaign tactics, or capitalizing on a service disruption to remind riders that BART needs money like whoa?

Not exactly, BART's people say. Yes, a bond is likely coming; yes, riders need to be convinced it's a good idea; but the Twitterstorm is also just a way to tell people what's going on. Really.

"We know asking for money is always an uphill battle, even for the most worthy of causes," said BART chief spokeswoman Alicia Trost (not the Internet-savvy mind behind last night's tweets; that'd be Taylor Huckaby, one of Trost's people). "This is a very worthy cause, but we'll still have to explain why we need it and what we'll do with the money."

And it seems to be working. Instead of merely slamming public transit as shoddy, smelly, and underfunded, several riders jumped to BART's defense. We bet we know which way they're voting — and how BART feels about it.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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