Getting Bay Area Rapid Transit back on track could require substantial changes to service and staffing without emergency aid from the federal government.
Potential contingency strategies that will be considered to remediate the agency’s short-and long-term financial woes could be as dramatic as total weekend shutdowns, station closure and staff layoffs.
“Though we must shrink our costs, including reducing headcount, we are doing everything we can to do this in a way that reduces layoffs,” BART Budget Director Christopher Simi told the Board of Directors Thursday.
BART has already identified significant cost savings measures to balance the budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 through the third quarter, which ends March 31. It projects a $33 million shortfall during the last three months of the year. But this year is expected to be a precursor to a longer term structural deficit that could last even beyond fiscal year 2030, Simi said.
Ridership has slowly ticked back up in recent weeks, but it continues to sit at only roughly 13 percent of pre-pandemic levels, much slower than the return anticipated in the revised budget passed back in June.
According to Simi, the most updated projections don’t see ridership reaching pre-coronavirus levels at any point in the next 20 months, and they likely won’t even reach two-thirds of those levels until fiscal year 2022-2023.
“BART is not alone. Our peers are also moving towards permanent reductions,” Simi said, clarifying that although this agency is recovering slower than others, “nobody is doing well.”
Staff asked the board to give it permission to move through its 7-Point Plan to first attempt to bridge the gap without further reducing service levels — which have already been changed to include 30-minute headways, fewer trains and early closing systemwide — by using more immediate cost-savings and administrative adjustments.
The board’s direction does not require staff to cut the $33 million in spending from its budget, an omission Director Debora Allen sought to counter with a failed substitute motion that would’ve mandated staff provide the board with a budget revision at its meeting next month.
BART General Manager Bob Powers called the plan “all hands on deck,” and reiterated his confidence that agency staff will balance the budget by year’s end instead of the one-month turnaround.
Strategies focus on non-labor expenditure cuts such as reducing and consolidating contracts, extending the hiring freeze and eliminating vacancies as they come up, consideration of an early retirement incentive program using negotiations with union leadership and shifting workers from operational duties to capital-based projects such as maintenance and longer-term initiatives.
“What we have before you is an opportunity today to make a decision to trust in our staff and trust in this plan that we will meet this moment and get to the 33,” Director Lateefah Simpson said of her full confidence that this approach by staff will address the deficit without even more drastic cuts.
If the 7-Point Plan doesn’t achieve the amount of savings expected or the federal government fails to provide relief early in the next year, more far-reaching and transformative alternatives — namely layoffs and service changes — will be necessary.
Staff told the board it plans to run through four different service and staffing cut scenarios of varying severity — ranging from the current levels to the deepest reductions — that it will present to directors before the end of the year.
Such modifications can only take place twice a year — once in February and once in September — because they require extensive back-and-forth with the union to comply with requirements under the collective bargaining agreement.
BART’s Board of Directors will need to decide which of the four scenarios it wants to move forward with in February by mid-December to allow enough time for the bidding and negotiation process with the union, according to staff.
Most of the directors spoke in opposition to the most extreme service reductions including much larger headways between trains, shutting down stations or eliminating weekend service.
“Trying to consider a world where BART doesn’t run on weekends is scary,” Director Janice Li said, calling the worst case scenario “apocalyptic.”
Thursday’s entire budget discussion was tinted with hope from many of the directors that things will change after November 3, should Joe Biden win the presidential race and Democrats gain seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Board members hope there’s a far greater chance a Democratic-run Capitol Hill would usher in a relief bill for transit agencies and other industries quickly.
“We are about to see this country hopefully elect a president that’s probably the most transit-using president in this country,” Director Bevan Dufty said as he encouraged the board not to jump to worst case scenarios when planning for the future of BART just yet.
Simon echoed this call, encouraging her colleagues to “put in the work” to advocate for transit funding.
“I ask you all not to just lift up the problem, but be part of the solution,” she said.