BART board approves low-income riders discount and raises fares for everyone else

BART approved a discount pilot program for low-income riders Thursday, while also approving future fare increases across the board.

BART approved a discount pilot program for low-income riders Thursday, while also approving future fare increases across the board.

The board also approved its $2 billion annual budget with a focus on what it called “quality of life” initiatives.

That new budget will see 19 more police officers hired as riders continue to express safety fears. BART will also spend millions toward modifying its stations to discourage fare cheats.

“This is the biggest increase in safety in this system in a generation,” said BART Board of Directors President Bevan Dufty, at the meeting.

The BART Board of Directors voted 8-1 Thursday to approve the discount program. The discount is part of a year-long regional pilot program that Caltrain, Muni and Golden Gate Transit are all expected to participate in. The overall budget was also approved 8-1.

At the same meeting, the BART board just barely approved new fare increases set to start in 2022.

At first, the fare increase vote failed with the dissension of four directors. It fell short of its needed “ayes” during the first vote Thursday morning, prompting startled gasps from the audience.

Late Thursday afternoon the board voted again, and it was approved 6-3.

The fare hike will bring a big boost to BART’s revenues — roughly $400 million, slated to fund new BART cars and increased service, staff said.

With the fare hike’s failure to pass, BART General Manager Grace Crunican offered a grave warning to the board of directors.

BART’s $2 billion budget was constructed with the assumption the fare increases would pass, she said. New BART trains, more police, station modifications — failing to pass a fare hike may mean cascading budget changes, much like falling dominoes.

“This is a huge sum of money we were planning on having available,” Crunican said. “This changes everything for us.”

But the board of directors had their own priorities. Just as the vote was set to take place, Debora Allen, a director who represents Contra Costa County, pushed her colleagues to support diverting more than $20 million toward power washing suburban BART stations. She cautioned that the agency should not raise fares while service is “declining.”

When that effort failed, she ultimately voted no on the fare increase.

Similarly, Rebecca Saltzman, a director who represents Alameda and Contra Costa counties, said she wanted to see the agency charge for parking in more BART stations than West Oakland, following arguments from the public that urban, transit-supporting BART riders were subsidizing people who choose to drive.

“We continue to increase fares while leaving parking fees flat,” Saltzman told her colleagues. Raising parking fees is crucial, she said. “That’s what my vote would be contingent on.”

But director Robert Raburn warned the agency needs a strong credit rating to help fund future bond measures.

Failing to raise fares may endanger those funding efforts, he said.

“If we jettison this now we put at risk those bonds. It’s like quitting your job and asking the bank for a loan,” he warned.

Ultimately, BART board director Mark Foley proved to be the crucial flip — turning his nay vote on the fare increases to an aye.

Foley had earlier expressed dismay that the fare increases would stretch so many years into the future that directors would need to win an additional election to see it sunset. In what apparently was a compromise to earn his vote, the board amended the 3.9 percent fare hikes to take place in 2022, 2024, and 2026 — dropping a fourth fare hike in 2028.

“In my eyes, it’s a compromise not to jeopardize the long-term financial health of the agency,” Foley said, before voting. “Down the road,” he added, “we might change the program to make adjustments.”

Half of the anticipated $400 million from fare hikes will go toward purchasing 306 new “Fleet of the Future” BART cars, expanded rail storage facilities, and improvements to BART power infrastructure aimed at providing more frequent service, according to budget documents. An already-approved fare hike is also coming next year.

The budget itself passed far more peaceably. Only director Liz Ames, who represents Alameda county, cast a dissenting vote.

The approved fare discounts also were approved without much acrimony — which makes sense, as they are wildly popular with ridership, according to BART outreach. But those discounts are also a particularly pernicious ask for BART compared to some other transit agencies.

BART’s budget is heavily dependent on the fare box whereas Muni, by contrast, nets a higher portion of its budget from San Francisco city government. BART staff pointed out, however, that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will support half of the discount’s cost, making BART’s total give roughly $4 million.

Riders whose incomes are at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level are eligible for the discount, which would offer a twenty percent discount on BART fares. That would make a fare from Downtown Berkely to San Francisco lower from $4.85 to $3.85, for instance. The pilot is slated to last 12 to 18 months, pending a future decision.

The board also shot down a separate proposal to raise the surcharge on magnetic-stripe BART tickets from 50 cents to one dollar. The move was aimed at incentivizing the 15 percent of BART riders who use magnetic-stripe tickets to switch to plastic Clipper cards, which are seen as speedier methods of payment.

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