Three candidates leading race for open seat on BART board

The race between six candidates for a San Francisco BART board seat is already screamin’ down the trackway, with three candidates leading the race to win over voters this November.

Candidates Melanie Nutter, Jonathan Lyens and Janice Li have raised the most money among the six candidates in the race.

Nutter, former head of San Francisco Department of the Environment, raised $77,350 as of Saturday. Lyens, a city contracts negotiator, raised roughly $65,000, and Li, a San Francisco Bicycle Coalition advocacy director, has raised roughly $25,000.

Another candidate, former City College of San Francisco student trustee William Walker, raised just under $500 on a public GoFundMe page. Candidate Brian Larkin, a former BART staffer of 13 years, told the Examiner he self-funds the flyers he distributes by hand, and a final candidate, Eva Chao, declined to reveal her funding amounts.

The BART Board District 8 seat, currently held by BART board director Nick Josefowitz, represents a portion of San Francisco that wraps in a crescent shape from the northern tip of The City around the west to the bottom of San Francisco. It includes neighborhoods such as North Beach, the Marina District, The Richmond and Sunset Districts, the Ingleside and Crocker Amazon neighborhoods — many of which are not directly served by BART.

It’s also a race that comes at a time of great scrutiny and debate for BART over issues including fare evasion, proposals to implement facial recognition surveillance technology, the BART Police Department killing of Shaleem Tindle, an Oakland resident, the fatal stabbing of rider Nia Wilson and early morning closures forcing pre-dawn riders fleeing to supplemental bus service.

At a BART board candidates forum hosted by the San Francisco Transit Riders group in mid-September, most of the candidates agreed the system needs a second underwater transbay tube to allow BART to circumvent systemwide delays. With only one tube connecting San Francisco and the East Bay, the passage turns into a choke point.

“Do we really need a second transbay tube? Just kidding. We needed it yesterday,” said Li, at the forum. “Anyone who takes BART today feels the crunch.” Lyens said BART isn’t working fast enough to determine who will pay for that second transbay tube.

Nutter said “we have to start planning it right now, today.”

Larkin, the former BART staffer, said he wants to ensure a second transbay tube is paired with discussions on expanding BART service to the West Side of The City. That was a long-time proposal of BART board director James Fang, who was ousted by Josefowitz.

Lyens, who is blind, said he’d seek to expand a newly enacted elevator ambassador program, which uses nonprofit staffers sitting in BART elevators in San Francisco to prevent people from using them as bathrooms. Lyens also wants to increase the avaibaility of tacticle maps for the blind, and fix BART’s “tone deaf” approach to those with disabilities, he said.

Li and Lyens both pitched better integration not only between BART and Muni but enhanced cooperation and planning between the BART Board of Directors and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, which oversees Muni.

“SFMTA has a board. BART has a board. They should be doing meetings together so their agencies should be forced to do things together,” Li said.

“These are basics, the fundamental basics BART continues to fail at,” Lyens said.

Some of the candidates also touted their personal experiences riding BART.

Walker grew up in San Francisco and started riding BART “when I was five,” but “I have a car now. I can’t afford to take BART every day to UC Berkeley where I attend school.” That experience has led him to advocate for a “seamless” BART experience with other agencies, to make hopping from BART to AC Transit and Muni more affordable. SPUR, a local think-tank, has long advocated for more integration between Bay Area transit agencies, citing the high cost of transferring transit modes as a deterrent, sending people into cars and clogging Bay Area roads.

Nutter was raised in Chicago by a single working mother. “We didn’t have a car,” she said, so “I had to figure out how to get around on my own as a city kid.” That experience led her to desire “safe and reliable” BART for families.

Nutter was appointed to run the San Francisco Department of the Environment by then-mayor Gavin Newsom in 2010, and now runs an advisory firm focusing on “smart cities.”

Lyens said public transit allowed him freedom. “As a blind person, I could just go,” he said.

But, he added, “BART is failing at the basics.”

Many of the candidates scorched BART for failing on multiple fronts. Chao, a first generation immigrant from Taiwan, said he mother visits her on BART from El Cerrito but those nighttime trips “scare the hell out of me,” due to a lack of safety.

Li was the first candidate to bring up BART police killings.

“Mr. Shaleem Tindle. Does anyone know who he is?” she asked. “He was a man shot and killed by BART police earlier this year in February. I have a lot of issue with filling even 20 positionts at BART police without understanding what’s happened.” Importantly, BART police argued at a late September BART meeting for the addition of 50 more officers.

BART also needs to deal with homelesness in San Francsico, Li said.

“They say ‘we don’t deal with homelessness, that’s someone else,’ but people are taking refuge in their stations,” Li said.

Both candidates Walker and Lyens advocated for unarmed ambassadors to help ensure passenger safety, a proposal recently introduced by current BART board directors Lateefah Simon and Bevan Dufty. “We need a better BART staffing presence, and this doesn’t need to be people with guns,” Lyens said. “We need more lighting, we need more cleanliness.”

Walker wants to see BART offer discounts on weekends to boost its recently declining ridership, he said. More people on BART means more safety, he said.

Nutter said BART needs to provide a mobile app that seamlessly cooridnates fare payment with local buses, as well as bike share and other transportation services. Josefowitz, who currently holds the BART board seat the candidates are vying for, begun conversations around integrating BART fares with other agencies. “That’s something that if elected I’d like to take on and accelerate,” Nutter said.

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