$3 billion BART bond discussed amid system failure

A BART train experienced an electrical surge Thursday morning that shut down part of the system for hours — on the same day decision-makers met to figure out how to ask voters for billions of dollars to stop such service stoppages in the future.

As the delays rippled through the transit system until midday, stranding thousands of commuters after three of five lines (Fremont-Richmond, Fremont-Daly City, Dublin/Pleasanton-Daly City) went out of service, agency officials and management sat in a room on the 23rd floor of BART headquarters to strategize a possible $3 billion bond in the November 2016 election.

That funding may be key to bringing the aging transit system into the 21st century, said one BART board member.

“Most of [the electrical system] is 44 years old,” BART board member Nick Josefowitz, who represents part of The City, told the San Francisco Examiner. “That stuff is deteriorating. When it does, we have electrical fires.”

“I don’t know what caused today’s fire,” he said, but without critical investments “you get breakdowns and problems.”

For the record, Thursday’s incident was not a fire.

“It was a flash,” said BART spokesman Jim Allison, “a huge spark on steroids.”

The three-car BART train was traveling north on the Richmond-Fremont line about 4:30 a.m. when the rear car was scorched by a 1,000-volt electrical surge.

Three riders were injured not by the surge, but when they exited the car. One passenger was injured while punching out a window, another had an asthma attack due to smoke, and the third suffered a back injury while exiting the car.

BART said the three riders abandoned the car despite warnings from the operator to stay on the train.

Four stations — Lake Merritt, Fruitvale, Coliseum and San Leandro — and the Oakland Airport connector all shut down due to the electrical surge but reopened around 9 a.m.

The incident seems to bolster the need for major improvements to the system — in fact, the section of track where the incident occurred between the Coliseum and Fruitvale stations was replaced only a few months ago. But will voters give BART the money to prevent more service stoppages? That’s the question BART board members pondered Thursday.

BART has nearly $5 billion in unmet capital needs over the next 10 years, which the bond would help meet.

A poll of voters on two possible amounts — $3 billion or $1.5 billion – was presented to the BART board of directors’ asset management committee by Dave Metz, a partner in public opinion research firm FM3.

“The polls show a bond measure is viable,” Metz said. But “there is some data here to suggest there’s dissatisfaction with the system’s infrastructure.”

One surprising takeaway from the poll, BART board members said, was voters’ likelihood to approve the bond did not change with the amounts proposed.

In the survey of 931 randomly selected likely voters across BART’s service area, 67 percent supported a $3 billion bond and 66 percent supported the $1.5 billion bond.

Board Director Robert Raburn, who represents part of Alameda County, said that “the most surprising part is the dollar amount didn’t matter to those surveyed. It’s irrelevant.”
Board members will spend the next six months researching BART’s asset needs. Management told the Examiner the committee may make a recommendation as early as January on the two bond amounts.

Thursday, the board members mostly leaned toward the $3 billion number, with Rayburn saying he’s in “the $3 billion camp.” Still, the final decision won’t be easy, Metz said.

“With three billion, we’re right at the cusp here,” Metz said, referring to voters’ willingness to approve the bond. “It’s pretty close. We’re in a range where every point of support is critical.”

BART General Manager Grace Crunican told the Examiner that management will recommend the $3 billion figure to the board.

The bond would need to pass a two-thirds vote in three counties — San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa — to win. The poll also showed riders are more likely to vote for a bond if they are well acquainted with BART’s problems.

Director Josefowitz said funding decisions now may make the difference between treading water or significantly revamping the system.

“We don’t want to just keep us where we are,” he said. “We want to prepare for the next 40 years.”

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