The heads of (from left) the Golden Gate Transit District, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, BART, Valley Transportation Authority, AC Transit and SamTrans/Caltrain gathered at the Salesforce Transit Center on Wednesday to present a plan intended to increase public trust in transit. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Transit leaders release safety plan in bid to regain public trust

Leaders of five of the Bay Area’s major transit agencies convened at the otherwise largely vacant Salesforce Transit Center Wednesday, the first time they have gathered in person since before the shelter-in-place order was issued in early March.

The show of unity was to announce the Bay Area Healthy Transit Plan, a set of strategies adopted by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and its member agencies designed to ensure the safety of riders, protect the wellbeing of operators and encourage residents to trust public transportation again.

With revenues from ridership, fareboxes and sales taxes all cratering, transit agencies across the region are struggling to survive. But officials hope the Healthy Transit Plan will reassure passengers the decision to ride public transportation doesn’t carry an undue risk of contracting the coronavirus and help spur recovery.

“It seems public transportation is as safe a place to be as anywhere else,” SFMTA Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin said, citing global research suggesting COVID-19 transmission rates on transit are no higher than average assuming stringent hygiene protocols, social distancing and mask-wearing.

The plan creates a minimum framework of health and safety standards, regardless of variance in county-specific rules, to be implemented at across Bay Area transit agencies.

It includes measures such as required face masks, social distancing of at least three feet (assuming masks), regular hand-washing and touchless fare options to reduce the likelihood of person-to-person or surface-to-person transmission.

It also calls for the creation of a metrics dashboard that will track performance indicators and ridership. Officials said it would both make progress reportable to the public and allow transit leaders to adapt based on its findings.

Cleaning protocols were a primary focus Wednesday. Workers demonstrated the anti-viral vapor fogging procedure used at least daily to completely disinfect the vehicles.

Ventilation was also emphasized, with promises made to use only the highest-rated air filters, keep windows open whenever possible and ensure ventilation systems function at their best.

“We have reimagined what transit service can and will be. We are renewed, and we are ready,” BART General Manager Bob Powers said.

Powers called the plan a “new social contract with our riders” that’s crucial to public transportation’s ability to bounce back.

Robert McDonnell, an SFMTA transit car cleaner, sprays a Muni bus down with an electrostatic cleaner. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

However some critics say the plan lacks an implementation strategy or the ability to hold agencies accountable if they underperform.

“We have been asking MTC to take charge, as the regional agency that funds and oversees all 27 transit agencies, by setting strong, uniform requirements that every agency would have to follow. MTC has abdicated that role,” Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney for the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates, said in an email.

“This long-overdue report, written by people who safely shelter in place, does not reflect the requests that frontline transit workers, other essential worker and transit-dependent riders, have been making to MTC since April,” Marcantonio said.

Marcantonio noted the plan doesn’t specify how much PPE transit agencies are required to provide workers or mandate agencies provide masks and sanitizer to riders.

The vagueness leaves riders and drivers to fill in the gaps.

Even some of the thirty members of the MTC Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force, the coalition of business leaders, advocates and elected officials created in May to guide the regional transportation response to COVID-19, said they weren’t pleased with the substance of the Healthy Transit Plan.

“This isn’t a plan. This is a study. A plan would have an implementation component that would give you confidence,” said Bob Allen, director of policy and advocacy campaigns for task force member Urban Habitat, adding that implementation also means repercussions if a transit agency didn’t comply.

Transit officials said passenger compliance is essential to the protection of frontline workers.

Though individual agencies are free to impose more stringent requirements or provide more comprehensive resources and support, they’re not required to under this agreement.

San Francisco’s Muni, for example, has leveraged its limited resources towards dramatically upping the frequency of buses that serve essential workers and transit-dependent riders to create more social distance, Tumlin said.

“It’s something I’m actually proud this agency has been able to do in spite of everything that’s been thrown at it,” Tumlin said.

BART provides hand sanitizer dispensers on many of its platforms and has installed face mask vending machines in a number of stations.

Despite the criticism of the plan, everyone agreed that real recovery is impossible without transportation.

“We all know this is a difficult challenge, we don’t think this is easy at all,” Allen said of the complexity of creating, funding and implementing a comprehensive, region-wide response that instills confidence in transit users.

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