BART service could increase as early as September, offering an early glimmer of hope for the beleaguered transit agency at the end of the train tunnel.
Under the proposal, weekday trains would run every 15 minutes until roughly 8 p.m., doubling the number of hourly trains running currently.
Weekend and evening weekday trains would continue to run with 30-minute headways.
Operating hours would extend to midnight six days per week, up from the current system-wide closing time of 9:00 p.m daily, except for Sunday which would continue to close early, and open later at 8 a.m.
“The most important thing we can do to bring back BART riders is bring back our service,” Board member Rebeccca Saltzman said of her support for the proposal, which will go up for a formal board vote in the coming months.
Staff presented three service scenarios to the BART Board of Directors on Thursday for discussion, though staff ultimately makes operational decisions such as this one without board approval.
The first called for 15-minute headways. The second for the system to be open until midnight.
Staff ultimately endorsed the third alternative, a combination of the two other, less ambitious approaches, making it the most costly option, but also the one with the most potential upside to support economic recovery across the Bay Area and to incentivize riders to return to BART.
Preliminary budget projections for fiscal year 2021-2022 using this scenario estimate a roughly $31 million deficit, which would be balanced by a combination of retirement incentives, targeted cost reductions and federal stimulus funds, according to the staff presentation on Thursday.
“I think it’s hopeful, and I think our riders are going to reward us and come back to the system,” Board member Bevan Dufty said. “You can’t be a transit system without people.”
Ridership numbers in recent days signal people are warming up to the idea of returning to BART.
Though ridership remains down by nearly 80 percent compared to pre-pandemic numbers, the system shuttled 59,151 passengers on Wednesday April 7, its highest number of passengers since the shelter-in-place order was issued.
Supporters of the proposal to both increase the number of hourly trains and extend hours of operation say doing so is essential to attracting BART riders with an uncrowded, reliable experience that presents a viable alternative to private vehicles.
“If we don’t provide service that could match potential increased ridership, we will never get increased ridership,” Board member Janice Li said. “Our riders will not find BART an attractive option if trains run too infrequently or are too crowded.”
They also emphasize the service expansion’s equity impact, which would provide access to late night shift workers currently cut out by the 9 p.m. closing time as well as shorten travel times for anyone traveling outside of traditional peak hours, a group that’s grown to represent a significant percentage of passengers during the pandemic, including essential workers and transit-dependent riders.
Labor partners agreed.
“Our riders cannot consider BART as an option if service doesn’t meet their needs,” Jesse Hunt, President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents many system operators, said during public comment.
So why does BART have to wait until September?
Like many of its peer agencies, BART enacted a hiring freeze for non-mission critical positions at the start of the pandemic. Refilling the dozens of vacancies, many of which are station agents and train operators, will take months as the agency conducts its extensive hiring and training processes.
Though the proposal, which was not up for a vote on Thursday, was met with a largely warm reception from board members on Thursday, it still garnered concerns from some.
Directors Debora Allen and Liz Ames urged caution in adopting too optimistic of a view around ridership that could then lead to budget forecasting problems down the road, a scenario BART already had to contend with earlier in the pandemic when revenue fell well below projections.
Others, including supporters of the plan, questioned whether 30-minute frequencies after 8 p.m. and on weekends would meet rider demand come September, when many Bay Area residents are likely to be vaccinated and offices will have started to reopen.
Before the pandemic, trains ran every 20 to 24 minutes on evenings and weekends.
Staff said these added windows would be crucial for completing ongoing track and electrical work.
Saltzman, who said she was “not thrilled” about the weekend service under the proposal but understood the rationale, summed up a collective optimism voiced by many on the board about the thought of finally ratcheting up BART service after a year-plus of cuts and reductions.
“We can be what we have wanted to be, which is getting people everywhere all over the Bay Area for different purposes,” she said.