An early look at BART’s budget planning for the upcoming fiscal year, beginning July 1, suggests the regional rail agency will prioritize increased train service, traditional cleaning methods and the presence of visible safety staff against a backdrop of continued uncertainty around the pandemic’s impact.
BART released its FY22 Preliminary Budget Memo at the end of March, and the board will discuss it publicly for the first time today.
With federal aid and cost-cutting measures, BART balanced its FY20 and FY21 budgets, and the memo concludes it should be able to do so again in the upcoming fiscal year, even as ridership hovers around 88 percent down from pre-pandemic levels and passenger fares and parking fees are expected to generate only $169 million in revenues FY22, or 21 percent of the operating budget.
But it also asserts that federal funds are a one-use only lifeboat, and the future of the rail network depends heavily on getting riders back, a task charged to the BART board.
Today’s meeting will include discussions of the lineup of investments — some of which come with a high price tag — the agency intends to propose in order to attract riders and convince them BART is the best way to move through the bay.
“This is a calculated risk that as the economy opens back up, people will return to offices, large venues, restaurants and the like,” the memo reads. “Staff believes that the investments in this budget are necessary to attract those potential riders”
Key to BART’s preliminary budget memo is a path toward investment in cleaning and sanitation strategies proven to both combat the transmission of COVID-19 and reassure riders its safe to return to trains.
The agency plans to hire 50 new part-time and 17 new full-time workers to clean cars and ensure trains leaving stations have clean seats and are without debris such as gum, litter or stickers. It will also bring on 22 additional part-time cleaners to enhance station cleaning and help roll out upgrades such as new paint and soap dispensers at the 75 bathrooms systemwide.
BART will upgrade its train ventilation system to a design proven to more effectively circulate air and filter out small particles. Doing so will allow it to stop fogging trains overnight and re-dedicate resources towards the cleaning and sanitation protocols that makes for an enhanced rider experience.
Together, the enhanced car cleaning and station restroom efforts are expected to run a net cost $9.4 million to the agency.
Staff has already looped the board in on plans to increase service as early as September, an expenditure that is factored into FY22’s budget but is also expected to attract riders who need more robust service as the Bay Area economy reopens.
Currently, trains run every 30 minutes outside of peak commute hours and stop at 9 p.m.
Under the new schedule, funding would be directed toward restoring 15-minute headways between trains until 8 p.m. and keeping the system open with 30-minute headways until midnight six nights a week.
Doing so, according to the memo, would ensure riders more frequent service and provide a nighttime option for the growing number of people going out during the evenings plus the late night or overnight shift workers currently excluded from the service plan.
This option would add approximately $59.6 million in operating expenses and an estimated $17 million in revenues between passenger fares and carbon emission reduction credits.
That leaves an estimated net cost of $42.6 million that would be largely covered by federal relief funding.
However, it’s also expected to help bring back the greatest number of riders as compared to other, less ambitious service scenarios at around $42.8 million in the fiscal year.
Looking at results from customer satisfaction surveys, BART will also focus resources in the next budget cycle on safety, predominantly through staffing of the Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau within the BART Police Department.
Staffed with a combination of sworn personnel and trained mental health and crisis intervention specialists, the unit will boost the visible presence of these officers on train cars and stations.
The memo says this boost is intended to assure riders of their safety but also to ensure the wellbeing of individuals experiencing mental health crisis, homelessness or substance use.
To staff the unit, some officer vacancies will be reallocated and 15 entirely new full-time positions will be added.
Though the BART board will begin discussions of the FY22 budget on April 22, it will go through a weeks-long process before it becomes final. The vote is currently scheduled for June 10.
Even when approved, though, the agency cautions change is likely depending on ridership, the reopening of the economy and a host of other pandemic-related factors, which could mean some of the financial risks taken to attract passengers might have to be walked back or modified.
“There is also a very real risk that ridership does not recover,” according to the memo. “If so, staff is prepared to pull these investments back.”