BART considers eliminating Sunday service

Agency weighing worst-case scenarios as ridership falls more than 90 percent

BART may no longer run on Sundays if low ridership continues.

That drastic fall-back plan not yet been enacted. But it is one of a number of cost-cutting measures the agency is considering amidst a 92 percent drop in ridership prompted by coronavirus concerns and shelter-in-place orders.

As farebox revenue plummets, transit agencies Bay Area-wide are considering do-or-die scenarios that would hardly have seen plausible a month ago. On Wednesday, Muni announced it would temporarily eliminate subway service.

A $2 trillion federal stimulus package now undergoing congressional approval would provide much-needed funding for BART as it faces a potential operating budget loss of $442 million, nearly half of its previously allocated $1 billion operating budget.

That number is still an early estimate, based on factors that change day-to-day, hour-to-hour.

Still, BART staff said they must plan for all scenarios.

“This is uncharted waters for everybody,” General Manager Bob Powers told the Board of Directors during its regular meeting Thursday, which was conducted by phone.

Powers assured staff that talks on Sunday service elimination were still preliminary. Service reductions in the evening, moving from a midnight closure to a 9 p.m. closure, were only just put in place, he added.

“We would be very transparent with the BART board and the public” on Sunday service elimination, he said, adding that staff “won’t do this behind closed doors.”

Other possible service changes include 30-minute weekday train headways, as well as 40 and 48-minute headways on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as the elimination of BART’s red and green lines, which service the Richmond and Warm Springs/South Fremont stations.

There are a few “triggers” for such a decision, which may include other service cuts, agency spokesperson Alicia Trost told the San Francisco Examiner: If government forces such a service reduction, if a “large number” of employees fell ill and could not work, or “to save” the agency’s operating budget.

The federal stimulus would bring nearly $1.3 billion to Bay Area transit agencies. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional body, will hold that purse and is undergoing negotiations with its transit agency partners in the Bay Area to determine how to allocate the funds.

The MTC will tentatively consider that funding for approval at its April 22 meeting, said spokesperson John Goodwin.

With the duration of the statewide shelter-in-place order still up in the air, the transit agency also expects to seek help from a second federal stimulus package and emergency funding from the state. All of it may be needed.

Pam Herhold, BART’s assistant general manager of performance and budget, told board members Thursday that BART may struggle for years after the COVID-19 pandemic, as more workers opt to permanently work from home and the economy struggles to regain its footing.

A budget presentation showed a potential operating budget loss of between $442 million and $286 million. That’s down from a budget of about $1 billion from July 2020 to July 2021.

“I think what we’re going to have to do is create our budget almost from the ground up this year,” Herhold told the board.

Despite the speculative nature of a Sunday closure, the BART Board of Directors were at odds on the need for closure.

BART Board member Liz Ames said she supported it, “if there was a bus bridge option,” whereas Board member Rebecca Saltzman said that “uniformly,” responses she heard on social media agreed cutting Sunday service would be “the worst.”

Saltzman said “essential” workers depend on BART, even as ridership dwindles.

“Doctors, nurses, people who work in food banks, they work on Sunday. Their work doesn’t stop,” Saltzman said. “Even though those are lower ridership days for us, people won’t be able to get to their jobs, especially for those who don’t have cars and for whom bus service doesn’t work.”

Board vice president Mark Foley also said he was opposed to Sunday closure. “After (the) Loma Prieta (earthquake), BART responded by extending service to help the Bay Area,” Foley said.

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