Podcast: BART’s GM shares her vision for 2017 and beyond
BART General Manager Grace Crunican is our guest on the latest edition of our podcast series “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.” In the interview, Crunican talks about the need to build a Better BART. Crunican also provides updates on new initiatives to deal with crowding, improve customer service, worker safety, and the Fleet of the Future.
You can also listen to the entire series.
HOST: “Welcome back to our latest edition of “Hidden Tracks: Stories From Bart.” I’m Chris Filippi and this time I’m speaking with BART’s general manager Grace Crunican. She’s been BART’s general manager for the last five years and oversees a system that continues to see ridership growth, which includes handling an average of more than 430,000 trips on a typical weekday.
CRUNICAN: “Thanks for having me here.”
Grace, when you first came to BART back in 2011 what was the state of the agency? What would you say were your immediate priorities?”
CRUNICAN: “Well when you take these jobs you have to come in and asses what’s going on and I did that and I think the focus needed to be on the infrastructure. That’s what was quite obvious to me. BART has spent a lot of time worrying about expansion outward and when I came on it was clear that we needed to look inward a little bit and we needed to give voice to the infrastructure and that’s what we’ve done. And there’s been a tremendous focus and a tremendous rallying of resources at the board level to make sure that we were replacing the cars, that’s something that’s paid for and on its way, that the Hayward maintenance facility is under change right now to accept the new cars and then we have a train control system that we’re designing for now and we hope we get additional funds for that from the bond measure or the federal government and then we move ahead on those items. In addition to that when I first came we were implementing the NOBLE Report which was a significant amount of change in the police department and I think the chief was leading that effort. He’s done a great job and we continued, I believe we’ve got everything done except one little item that’s there. And then we’re beginning to shift a little bit now to worry about frontline worker safety and customer service in an extraordinary way.
HOST: “Everyone knows there are stretches where original equipment from the early 70s is still being relied upon. Talk about the overall status of the system today. Are we near the breaking point, is it that urgent?”
CRUNICAN: “Well we’re not at a breaking point. Safety is always job one at BART so we will always run with safety in mind first. But as we’ve been making regular investments in the railroad over the years we’ve reached a point in our 45-year history where we need to make some major reinvestments. It’s just like replacing the roof on your house, at some point you have to do that and that’s not the kind of thing you can do a little bit each year you don’t do the north side one year, and then the south side, the east or the west. So what we’re doing now is continuing the work that our workers have been doing over the last 45 years, they’ve kept these cars running for 45 years and in 2012 we put in place the funding to replace those cars now we’re looking at the rest of the infrastructure and there are things like 90 miles of original rail that need to be replaced. About half the power system needs to be replaced. All these cables need to be replaced and that’s what this bond measure does.”
HOST: “You are in regular contact with your contemporaries at other transit agencies across the country. What are they telling you? Is the infrastructure challenge faced by BART unique?”
CRUNICAN: “No, it’s not unique at all. Everyone around the country has this problem whether you’re talking about Chicago, D.C., New York, everyone’s replacing major portions of their system. What we’re doing at BART is asking the local taxpayers to put in some money for this but I’ve got to tell you that the federal funds have been flat for a decade. The state funds are actually going down and so it’s come to the individual properties to take care of their investment themselves and that’s why we’re reaching out to the public to explain that part of it. I think it’s important to note that the riders are the ones that paid for the local match for the cars and now we’re asking the taxpayers to pay for the ongoing infrastructure, the substructure of the agency like the rails and the power system.”
HOST: “It may not be the most exciting thing to talk about replacing electrical wiring and aging track. And of course that ties in to measure RR, which if approved would allow BART to issue $3.5 billion dollars in bonds to do just that sort of work. Is it difficult to spread the word about BART’s infrastructure challenges and to find the funding to meet the need?”
“Well it’s actually a little bit more simple than you think. The average homeowner, someone with an apartment everyone understands you have to replace things at a certain point of time and we’re just explaining those pieces of the infrastructure that have to be replaced. The measure translates to about $8.98 per $100,000. So if you have a home that’s assessed value is $500,000, you’d pay $45 a year that’s about $4 a month to replace BART. And if you’re a rider on BART you certainly understand where the money is going to go and what the replacements for. Even if you don’t ride BART you appreciate the value of BART. We had an Oakland fire and the freeways were just packed and it took people sometimes four to five times as long to get where they wanted to go when BART was shutdown. People know that. They know that they benefit and they know that we carry the equivalent of a lane, a lane and a half of traffic on some of these major highways.”
HOST: “I’m speaking with BART General Manager Grace Crunican. Why not just go to the riders to pay more for this infrastructure work? Should it just be done with fares?”
CRUNICAN: “Well it’s a good question. You would go to the riders first and we did. In 2012 we went to the riders and the Board made the decision to put in place a fare increase that would keep up with inflation less half percent. And that half a percent means we have to get efficient with our resources. And the riders are paying for the local match on all the new cars. They’re paying for the local match on the Hayward maintenance facility and they’re paying for half the cost of the train control system. This is about the vibrancy of the Bay Area economically and environmentally and BART services both of those visions that we have so we keep the Bay Area moving. The riders have a role to play and then the rest of the folks that live in the Bay Area through the tax base and the businesses have a responsibility to pick up some of that tab so we can keep the whole Bay Area moving.”
HOST: “Critics say when BART asks for funding for infrastructure it may instead turn around and use that money to help pay for its labor contracts. How do you respond to that?”
CRUNICAN: “We legally can’t do that. The law prohibits us from spending it, it has to be spent on capital and infrastructure it can’t even be spent on the cars that’s why the riders paid for the cars because a bond measure can’t be spent on rolling stock. In addition to that, we have, if you look at the past, evidence of BART putting in over a half a billion with a B over the last five years into the infrastructure and we have plans over the next 10 years that call for $1.8 billion to be invested out of the operating money into the capital budget that’s unheard of for a transit agency to do. We just have a terrific record of investing in the infrastructure and we will continue to do that.”
HOST: “Of course that ties into a broader issue. Just last year BART and its unions reached a labor agreement before the old one expired. That deal goes through 2021. How important was it to come to an agreement with the unions to extend the contract and make sure that the trains will keep running for at least the next several years?”
CRUNICAN: “Well as soon as the last strike happened we had a report done on what we could do to improve our relations and then the unions and management started meeting on a number of topics. The board also played a role in working with the unions on a special committee. And when the opportunity came up last Spring we had already had a couple of days sessions on working together that was held in the Fall and so when we sat down I just said I don’t want to be the general manager that doesn’t ask would you be interested in this. And the unions all said yes and they sat down and we worked through the details of the contract in a fairly short period of time. And I think that it served us all well. We all know that we need to focus on improving relations more and more but this is now five years of peace going ahead and that five years is good for all of us. It’s good for the riders, it’s good for the unions and management.”
HOST: “I know a big concern for you is workplace safety. What’s happening on that front?”
CRUNICAN: “One of the other things were doing is working with our front line workers, which involve the police, it’s the station agents, it’s the train operators, the system service workers and those folks out replacing things like mechanics and working on the escalators or the machines, the fare machines and working with them on front line worker safety and also customer service together. They’re both very important. The civil discourse has kind of deteriorated in the country and the folks that provide front line worker safety are frankly dealing with a kind of rougher discussion that’s going on out there. It seems ok to yell at people a little bit more and use foul language and a few other things and so our station agents are really getting hit hard by this change in demeanor of the public. So we’re working with our front line employees on their safety and on customer service. They go hand and hand. We want them to feel safe and when they feel safe and they are safe they can provide better customer service.”
HOST: “What do you think BART does well? Where can we improve?”
CRUNICAN: “As someone that came from the outside and just walked into the situation that BART had I want to say that BART does a terrific job getting the railroad up and running every day. We have a terrific on-time performance record compared to the rest of the country. We have a very high fare box recovery, which means the riders pay the highest share for the operating cost of the agency of any system in the country. We’re outstanding in that regard. And we do a great job with preventative maintenance. That is our workers who are highly skilled and they have a high work ethic. Do a great job in the morning of getting the trains out the door and they’re out on time because we do a regular system maintenance on the vehicles ahead of time not waiting until something breaks. So in running the railroad we just do an incredible job of that. Now over the last five years the increase in ridership has just gone through the ceiling. We’ve added 100,000 riders so it’s packed on our trains, we know that. The new cars will help with that. It’s also hard to keep things cleaner when you’ve got you know another 25%. Just like cleaning your house if you have three people versus four people it’s just a lot harder to keep it clean and that’s what we’re doing is trying to do our best to keep it clean, keep things running and planning for preventative maintenance so that we take things out of service in a planned fashion, which makes it more convenient for the riders.”
HOST: “Lot of excitement about the Fleet of the Future. BART has a goal of adding 1,081 new cars. What kind of an impact is that going to have on capacity?”
CRUNICAN: “It’s going to have all sorts of impacts some on capacity and some on other items. In terms of capacity there will be on the one hand four fewer seats in each car so there’s more standing room. There’s also more places for bikes and planned spaces for folks in wheelchairs. But on the other hand, even though there’s fewer seats by adding the new cars we’ll have more room for people. So overall there will be an increase in seats of 49% and that will be incredible for the riders. There’s also some wonderful features of the new cars such as the air conditioning. The air conditioning comes from the ceilings, first of all it won’t be 45 year old air condition it’ll be modern air conditioning but it will flow from the ceilings and I think people will be cooler and that’s nice. They're more energy efficient. And then they’ll actually with the three doors on each side when they come into a station you can get on and off more conveniently and quicker and that’ll be very important for the downtown stations for us to keep the schedule while we’re carrying as many passengers as we are. So with the new cars coming in and the train control system working together in terms of the transbay tube we’ll be able to go from 23 trains an hour to 30 trains an hour through the transbay tube. In addition to that for those riding on trains that don’t have 10 cars on them the new cars coming on will allow for 10 car trains on every trip.”
HOST: “A big focus for you has been transit-oriented development, making it easier for people to live, work and play near mass transit. That fits right in with state goals for such development as well as Plan Bay Area, which is sort of a blueprint for our region. Why is this so important and how can BART be a part of this going forward?”
CRUNICAN: “I’ve always said when you’re talking about transit and land use that transit's the functionary and the goals are established by land use because the community gets together and says these are our aspirations. When the region put together Plan Bay Area one of the assumptions in there is that 38% of the jobs and 34% of the housing is going to be located within a half mile of BART. It’s incredibly important for us to replace the infrastructure today to handle the traffic we have today because the region’s growth between now and 2040 is counting on us to being there for a third of that growth. That growth is our economy and that growth is expected to come in an environmentally-friendly way, that’s BART. So BART owns some land near its stations and other people own land near the stations and we are working with developers and local communities to make sure that the growth that happens is happening in a community oriented fashion. But the higher densities need to be located next to the station because BART is kind of a people host. People get out there, there’s a lot of activity there and then the activity level diminishes as you go farther from the BART station in most of the cities around the Bay Area. MacArthur is a good example, San Leandro is another one. At San Leandro we have 200 housing units going in there that are all affordable housing units. At MacArthur we have a mixed development going in. Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek the same way there’s a lot of activity going on near those station and we’re doing our best to accommodate both if you will economic growth and the housing that goes along with it.”
HOST: “What’s your outlook for 2017?”
CRUNICAN: “Well part of the answer depends on what happens with the bond. If the bond measure passes we’ll be in the middle of implementing projects in 2017. We have some on the books, we’re developing others and we will begin that process of replacing the rails and getting the electrical system replaced. If the bond measure doesn’t pass, we’ll have to use the asset management program we have, which has an excellent risk factor to it, so we’ll be able to judge what projects we need to do with the money that we do have and we are continuing to invest and get the highest return based on safety and other issues. And we will continue to do the best we can with what we have. We will also be engaging the community in a conversation on how to pay for these things if we’re not going to do this what is the alternative because we’ve mostly focused on the successful side of the implementation and without that money there we’re going to have to make some tough decisions as to where we need to cutback. Whether it’s in service or other areas. There are some things that are moving ahead regardless of the bond. One is the new cars. They are funded and they’re on their way and we’ll be rolling them out and by the end of 2017 there will be cars rolling on every line that we have. And we will continue to work with the community trying to prioritize service questions. With the service that we do provide we still need to worry about those escalators and keeping the system clean. We have some on-going issues with the homeless and working with the communities that are trying to house the homeless. Homelessness and housing in the Bay Area continues to be an issue and BART is impacted by that and BART has something to offer in that regard as well with that compact development that can happen around transit-oriented developments.”
HOST: “Grace Crunican, General Manager with BART thank you so much of your time.”
CRUNICAN: “Chris, thanks for taking the time to come by. Thank you very much.”
HOST: “And thank you for listening to our latest edition of ‘Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.’ You can now find our podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher and of course at our website at BART.gov.”