Podcast: The outgoing board president talks about 20 years at BART


Podcast: The outgoing board president talks about 20 years at BART

Big changes are coming to BART’s Board of Directors.  In the latest edition of "Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART" we hear from Tom Radulovich who is leaving the BART board after 20 years of service.  The outgoing board president talks about his decision to not seek re-election as well as his hopes for the future of BART.  Radulovich also shares his thoughts on the idea of building a second Transbay Tube.

Transcript below:

HOST: “Welcome to our latest edition of “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.”  I’m Chris Filippi and this time I’m speaking with Tom Radulovich who is the outgoing president of the BART Board of Directors.    Radulovich was first elected to the BART board back in November of 1996 as the representative for the 9th District, which includes many stations in San Francisco.  Tom, thanks so much for joining us.”

RADULOVICH: “Thanks for doing this, Chris.”Radulovich

HOST: “20 years on the BART board is quite a run, among the longest in our district’s history.  What drove your decision to run the first time?”

RADULOVICH: “If you’re asking my mother she’ll remind you that I was interested in trains from a very early age, from age three.  But I think more immediately it was cities.  I grew up in Southern California, moved to the Bay Area in 1985 and I just kind of fell in love with Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco the Bay Area cities coming from someplace so suburban and coming from someplace so car oriented I got really interested in what makes cities livable and what can make them sustainable and public transportation is certainly a big part of that.  So I think it was my interest in cities that motivated me to run for this board.  I didn’t know a whole lot about public transportation I’ve learned a lot in 20 years being here but I still think in many ways transportation is a means not an end.  The end really is livability and kind of creating great places where people can thrive you know people can work and live and enjoy themselves.”

HOST: “Talk about your decision this time around to not run for re-election.”

RADULOVICH: “Sure I just ask myself this every four years when I have to run ‘do you want to do this for another four years?’  This time the answer was different this time the answer was no 20 years is enough.  I feel like I’m leaving on a high note, was very happy to see Measure RR pass, of course I didn’t know it was going to pass when I made the decision.  I felt like a lot of things that I tried to set in motion at least are moving in the right direction and I also feel like I have a great team of colleagues that are going to carry on that work.”

HOST: “And you mentioned Measure RR that was a big deal for the district $3.5 billion for infrastructure.  Talk about the importance of that and where you think it sets BART up in terms of going into the future.”

RADULOVICH: “Sure.  Well you know BART is like me kind of getting towards middle age.  It’s been in operation and very heavily used for over 40 years now going on 50 years and needs that big midlife infusion that midlife overhaul of some of the original system.  So Measure RR is going to pay for a lot of that.  It’s the train control system that we need to improve reliability to run trains a little closer together and improve our capacity.  It’s investments in track, it’s investments in the power and electrical systems that keep BART running.  So I think it’s important for the reliability of the system.  The Bay Area has become more reliant on BART over the years in fact the ridership of BART is double what it was when I started on the board 20 years ago.  So the Bay Area really depends on BART being there flawlessly, reliably every day and in order to do that we need to reinvest in the system. So there’s a capacity increase there’s the reinvestment and then I think the customer experience as well.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with outgoing BART Board President Tom Radulovich.  You’ve long been an advocate for transit-oriented development, getting affordable housing close to our stations.  How do you feel BART has done on that front?”

RADULOVICH: “Well, it’s been a mixed bag.  I think we have some very successful projects.  Whenever I go out to Pleasant Hill and see what we’ve done there it’s great.  There’s a lot of housing there’s affordable housing and market rate.  There’s shops we’ve created a whole network of streets there we’ve created a public space and plaza that’s really the centerpiece of the neighborhood.  It’s everything you want in a neighborhood in a 10-minute neighborhood so everything you want is within walking distance including transit which can take you to a huge number of places in the Bay Area.  Other transit-oriented developments have fallen a little short they’ve got one of those aspects right so I think we have a lot of work to do.  One of the things that we’ll be discussing this week at BART is our transit-oriented development policy and how to move it forward.”

HOST: “I’m sure you hear a lot from transit advocates, they’re interested in a second Transbay Tube.  What are your thoughts on that?”

RADULOVICH: “I think we’ll ultimately need one.  I don’t know if it should be just BART or even BART at all.  One of the ideas I’m really intrigued with is extending Caltrain to downtown San Francisco, which is the plan, and then maybe bringing that over to the East Bay connecting it to the Capitol Corridor line and interweaving these two system.  I look to other cities I look at what’s New York doing, what’s London doing, what are they doing and a lot of cities are trying to turn their commuter rail systems into what they call regional metro and I think that’s the vision for Caltrain.  I’ve been on the Capitol Corridor Board for years, that’s what we’re trying to do with Capitol Corridor is increase the frequency, increase its range and all of that.  So I think we’ll need that second crossing, I think we need to think out of the BART box.  Often, this is BART if you ask what’s the answer they’ll say BART without really understanding what the question is.  I think if we look closely at the question we come up with an answer.  Now I feel like that’s many years away.  We’ve got some incredible challenges just sustaining what we have obviously, we had a big step this November.   That’s going to be a major undertaking for the region.  I’m hoping that there will be a lot of planning and thinking including some, it’s kind of a cliché, but some out of the box thinking about what that tube should be, what services it should carry and so on.    Possibility it could be a four-bore tube, something, could be high speed rail, Caltrain on one level and BART on another.  BART because of some peculiarities of its design isn’t interoperable with other rail systems but things like high speed rail, commuter rail, intercity rail like Amtrak can all operate together so that’s something to think about too.  Do we want to have that flexibility in a transbay crossing to allow all those different services as well as BART to operate?  So it’s going to be a big conversation for the Bay Area one I hope to stay involved in and engaged in as it rolls forward over the next decade.”

HOST: “And that’s the thing when it comes to public transit for you too is you’re not going anywhere. I mean you’re still very involved in this.  I know you’re involved with a group in San Francisco, Livable City public advocacy group, so I mean you have plans it sounds like going forward.”

RADULOVICH: “Oh yeah, definitely.  This is what I love.  I was working on these issues and was engaged in all these questions very actively and very intently before I was a BART board director and will stay engaged afterwards.  So it’s what I love and I’m really thankful that the people in my district gave me the opportunity to do this.  To represent them and be their advocate on this board and very thankful that my colleagues showed their trust in me by making me president twice in the last five years.  It’s been an incredible opportunity for me and I’m very thankful for it.  And we’ll carry on this work but in another context.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with outgoing board president Tom Radulovich.  You were board president during some challenging times when it comes to labor relations.  How difficult was that for you, especially in 2013 when we had some strikes?”

RADULOVICH: “Very.  We had just got to impasse and the tension around that settlement, I just couldn’t understand it.  I couldn’t understand all of the emotions.  So it was very difficult getting all the way through that and getting to an agreement.  I feel like the agreement that we got to was a tough one to get to for both parties but is ultimately one that we’ve been able to live with.  It’s been productive for the system and in fact when both parties came together we said this is actually a reasonable framework and we extended that agreement earlier this year.  So it was terrible getting there but it wasn’t necessarily a bad agreement.  What I hope this district will continue to work on is never doing that again.  Labor relations have been fraught since I’ve been here and since before I was here.  The first year I was on this board there was a strike and every four years people not knowing whether BART’s going to be running or not the next day is just something that we have to end.”

HOST: “When you look back at your time, what accomplishment are you most proud of?”

RADULOVICH: “I think the reinvestment in the core system.  When I started I really ran because I felt like BART was neglecting the urban parts of the system and the urban core and it continued to do that for a long time.  I was certainly the minority voice for many, many years.  But I feel like there’s appropriate attention to that.  Things like improving transit oriented development is another one that I’m particularly proud of I think we’ve come a long way on that.  Access to our system.  When I came here we just really thought about access as parking lots and now it’s more multi-model. We’re really thinking more seriously about walking and cycling as modes of coordinating a little better, not as good as I would like with other transit agencies to make that seamless connectivity.  Create one regional network where even though we have a multiplicity of operators people can transfer easily using one card with coordinated fares, coordinated schedules and so on.  We’re taking baby steps towards that.  I believe that’s going to be really the challenge of the future.  Folks I think we have these over two dozen operators of transit in the Bay Area and I think customers really want that to operate as one integrated system and I think that’s the challenge for BART, challenge for the BART Board is how to make that happen.  We can’t tell those other transit agencies what to do but we can be leaders, we can demonstrate leadership.  Another thing I’m proud of is starting the BART-AC Transit Committee.  So we have a group now of BART directors and AC Transit directors that meet regularly and we’re trying to work through issues of how do we coordinate better to make it more seamless for our riders, our passengers.  How can we be there for the other agency when, as happens, there’s service disruptions of some kind, sort of mutual aid aspect.  I think that’s productive.  I think we’re going to need to do a lot more of that.  We’re probably going to need to have more committees that are working directly with each transit agency and using things like this Clipper consortium that we’ve created with the other operators and MTC not only just to manage that fare card but to begin to coordinate fares, schedules all of that so it’s seamless for the riders.”

HOST: “How about the other side of that coin, any disappointments?”

RADULOVICH: “Well, yeah, I think one of the things I learned early on I went to a conference in 1997 with a fellow named Fred Kent from Project for Public Spaces and he says ‘transit agencies think of yourselves as place-making agencies first and foremost and then the transit is the thing that links these places to one another.’  One of the big disappoints for me here is BART just never really got the gist of making and sustaining places.   One of the earliest projects I worked here on was the plaza renovations at 16th and Mission and BART just hasn’t kept those up.  We just operationally can’t get the rocks out of our game and can’t coordinate the necessary functions from cleaning to kind of policing activation and all of that.  So that’s something that BART has really fallen down on is this idea of public places at stations or even the stations as public places.  They’re really not great public places.  They’re not great design and they’re not well maintained, they don’t feel safe or inviting.  That station work is something that we really tried to accomplish here but we haven’t made much headway.  The other thing of course is that BART really got the message late on things like capacity enhancement and reinvestment.  We’re running, we’re playing catch-up we really let the system rundown in a lot of ways we let the system get overcrowded not because there weren’t voices here, mine being one of them, or voices in staff saying look if you’re going to extend off the ends of the lines you also need to reinvest in the core and reinvest in capacity.’  So that’s also a disappointment that we’ve allowed ourselves to get here even though we really could have seen that we needed to do these things in a different order.  Not necessarily not do them.  Extending the system has been a boon to the district in some ways as well but that needed to be balanced with core system reinvestment.  We didn’t’ do that we really let our passengers down in that regard.  So busy playing catch-up right now and have been for the last few years.  I think it will get a little worse for customers and then we’ll start getting better as we see the new railcars arrive next year and then the projects that are being funded by the bond begin to improve service.  But yeah it’s just disappointing for me as somebody who has been here a long time that we didn’t see this coming around the corner and deal with it in a timely way.”

HOST: “There are three new board members coming on in this next term.  What advice would you give them?”

RADULOVICH: “Well just, gosh that’s a hard one, just pay attention, absorb anything.  Listen to everyone, read everything that comes your way just be omnivorous in terms of trying to understand all the aspects of this.  On the one hand you can think running a transit agency is a very specialized thing it’s just for kind of transportation nerds.  But when you get into the work you realize it really touches on huge areas, vast areas of human experience.  We touch on a lot of things everything from an art policy to policing, which I’ve learned a lot about as a BART director to urban design and planning to housing policy to environment and sustainability.  It’s connected to so many things so I think we as directors need to just be generalists.  You need to develop that detailed transit knowledge, transportation knowledge, because it’s a huge part of what we do here but because it’s connected to so many other things you really are going to need to kind of just dive into all of those other connections.  Understand those as best you can.  Find out who the experts are that you trust who you are going to go to get the advice about what’s the absolute best thing to do in those areas.  So I think just understand that it’s not just about transit.”

HOST: “BART’s a little bit different.  A lot of transit agencies they have a board that’s appointed by political officials but here of course everybody on the BART board is elected by the public.  What do you think about that set up, does it work?”

RADULOVICH: “I think it does.  I mean I don’t have experience on the other system of appointed boards although my city has an appointed board.  I think some of the advantages of an elected board, and there are actually two in the Bay Area I believe the third’s in Denver, is we know who we work for. We do work for the riders we don’t work for the appointing officials.  That sometimes creates some tensions with staff, you know we’re the people’s elected representatives and we’re hearing from the people that they want X and Y and staff kind of have their own list of priorities and they’re the professionals and they’re here all day.  But I think that accountability is important and I think it’s helped BART to maintain that focus on the customer experience.  We get these quarterly performance reports, the board really engages with those every quarter in terms of how we’re doing.  I think for transit agencies that don’t have that, don’t have that direct accountability, it’s easier to get a little distance from the riders and from the users because you’re accountable to your appointing official or your appointing body not necessarily to the people.”

HOST: “Kind of a fun question here.  BART covers so much area in the Bay Area and there’s so much to see.  Be it from a train or from a platform is there a favorite view of yours anywhere in the BART system?”

RADULOVICH: “That is a good question.  I ride the underground parts of the system more often.  I do and I know it’s kind of a burden environmentally noise-wise on the West Oakland community but I do love that coming out of the Transbay Tube into West Oakland Station seeing the Berkeley Hills, watching them change color every year from brown in the summer to green this time of year back to brown.  The Oakland skyline, the clouds and skies so that’s one particular view I love.  The other one is the view from kind of the Berkeley Hills Tunnel going out to Walnut Creek I just love that you can ride through Lafayette there’s a town there but it doesn’t look like it.  You just see all these kind of gorgeous old oak trees rolling hills and all of that.  Plus the hills from the mouth of the tunnel into Orinda Station so I think it’s those hills and those Mount Diablo views that I also love.  So those are two particularly pretty parts of the BART system.  I think in terms of a favorite station it’s Glen Park Station.  Every time I ride through that station or walk through that station I do love the architecture of it.  It was a fellow named Ernest Born who was the designer.  Just the marble, the granite and the way the light fills that station it kind of feels almost like a 1960s version of a Romanesque cathedral.  So those are some of my favorite spots in the system.”

HOST: “You were on the BART Board for 20 years so let’s look into the future.  Twenty years from now what are you hoping BART will look like, what are you hoping the state of the system will be?”

RADULOVICH: “I hope again that BART feels much more seamlessly integrated into a regional system.  Since I’ve been here we’ve definitely seen a lot of growth and re-centering in San Francisco but we need to kind of think about connecting to the South Bay.  So what it will mean is BART will hopefully adopt and operate a whole bunch of different technologies.  We’ve been tied since our inception to this one particular technology that was invented for BART in the 1960s.  I think BART will need to become more multi-model.  Think about different modes, rail modes and even some non-rail modes to create that integrated system so it’s seamless and whether its BART or BART plus other operatives I think the seamlessness and that regional reach are two of the important things.  I also hope that when you walk out of BART stations, any BART station anywhere, you see a thriving walkable community you’re someplace.  You’re not in the middle of a parking lot or not in some forlorn freeway siding but that you’ve arrived someplace.  That’s going to be hard at a lot of the stations that are located in a freeway median so how do you create places around things that are not great things to live near.   So I think that idea of those walkable, thriving communities of a centered Bay Area growing around those BART stations is another part of what I’d like to see for the future.”

HOST: “Outgoing BART Board President Tom Radulovich, thank you so much for joining us.”

HOST: “And thanks to you for listening to our latest edition of ‘Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.’  You can find our podcast series on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and at our website, BART.gov.”